: Bloomberg: Crimea bridge as monument to Putin's Soviet revival project

15:38 Apr. 23, 2016

Bloomberg: Crimea bridge as monument to Putin's Soviet revival project

Bridge between Crimea and Russia under construction (GettyImages photo)

The bridge is built in Soviet tradition of cramming to meet politically-motivated deadline. 

The Russian annexation of Crimea is to be consummated with a 19-kilometer (11.8-mile) bridge connecting Russia with the Crimean city of Kerch. This project explains a lot about how Russia has functioned for ages, achieving surprising results with chaotic, ill-thought-out efforts, writes Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View columnist in his article.

The Nazis were the first to try to bridge the Kerch Strait in 1943 as they created an infrastructure for their invasion of the Soviet Union. The construction started just in time for the Soviet troops to push the Nazis back. The Germans bombed what they had built so the Russians couldn't use it. A permanent bridge has been discussed ever since.

Russia and Ukraine agreed to build the bridge in 2008, but the expensive project kept stalling. An agreement, reached a month before the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, was rescinded by the post-revolutionary government in Kyiv after the Crimea annexation.

Watch also: Photo exhibit at Kyiv airport hopes to provide insight into Maidan Revolution

For Russia, however, the project has become an urgent necessity. Crimea's water, gas pipelines, railroads and highways came from Ukraine. That quickly proved problematic as Ukrainian and pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatar activists set up a blockade of Crimea-bound cargoes and blew up the power transmission towers on the border with Crimea, all with Kyiv's quiet approval. At the same time, Crimea's economy, which relies heavily on tourism, suffered from the lack of Ukrainian vacationers and the inability of Russian ones to get to the peninsula in sufficient numbers.

So the Russian government hastened to commission the bridge. In typical fashion, a company owned by Arkady Rotenberg, Putin's erstwhile judo sparring partner, won the 384 billion ruble (USD 5.8 billion) tender for the design and construction of the bridge less than two weeks after Crimea held its fake referendum to join Russia in March, 2014.

The whole business looked ridiculous. The deadline Putin wanted and the government set, December 2018, looked unattainable. Under normal conditions, just the design and geological survey - there's a tectonic fault at the botton of the Kerch Strait - would have taken a few years.

Yet, Rotenberg stuck with the task. Putin must have felt safe to entrust it to his old friend following such assurances. At times, 800 engineers and technical experts worked on the project, in the Soviet tradition of cramming to meet a politically-motivated deadline.

Read also: Bloomberg: Putin's propaganda machine is meddling with European elections

Just like the gargantuan infrastructure projects for the Sochi winter Olympics, the all-important bridge is being built with no regard for reasonable timing, lots of political pressure, a Putin crony in control of the finances and a state-controlled company that has managed to preserve bits and pieces of its Soviet heritage. Under Putin, the country has barely developed any new expertise except in constructing shady financial schemes. The engineering talent and technology still has to be assembled from Soviet-era organizations that have somehow survived the tempestuous 1990s - and have often been renationalized since.

I believe the bridge will ultimately be built. It won't happen exactly on deadline: The railroad part is now scheduled for 2019. The cost will probably overrun, too, and Rotenberg may have to cover some of it out of his own pocket. Putin's propaganda media will sing paeans to the heroic feats of the workers and engineers who build the bridge, just as the Soviet press once did. The bridge will stand as a monument to Putin's Soviet revival project - and as an uncomfortable echo of a project the Nazis started but failed to finish.

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