Connecting Crimea.

Photographer: Mikhail Svetlov

Crimean Bridge Measures the Span of Putin's Ambitions

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The Russian annexation of Crimea is to be consummated with a 19-kilometer (11.8-mile) bridge connecting Russia's Krasnodar region with the Crimean city of Kerch. The first support of the bridge was completed earlier this month, beginning the final phase of a project that explains a lot about how President Vladimir Putin's Russia functions -- and how Russia has functioned for ages, achieving surprising results with chaotic, ill-thought-out efforts.

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. Hitler's personal architect and trusted minister, Albert Speer, commissioned and approved the plans, and 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. The Soviets completed a bridge in 1944, but it was a temporary one, using wooden supports, and ice floes crushed it in 1945. 

A permanent bridge has been discussed ever since. Long lines for the ferries between the Russian mainland and Kerch suggested that a rail and automobile connection would be much in demand. Russia and Ukraine agreed to build the bridge in 2008, but the expensive project kept stalling. An agreement reached a month beforethe 2014 "Revolution of Dignity" was rescinded by the post-revolutionary government in Kiev after the Crimea annexation.

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 Kiev'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 ($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 firm was part of Stroigazmontazh, a group of companies specializing on the construction of oil and gas pipelines -- a business, largely with state companies, that has made Rotenberg a billionaire. 

The whole business looked ridiculous. Bridge construction has never been Stroigazmontazh's specialty. Besides, in January, 2015, the government reduced the cost estimate to 212.5 billion rubles; by then, Russia's oil windfall was over and even the most politically important projects had to be run as cheaply as possible. 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.

Ukrainians declared the bridge project a fantasy or a device for Rotenberg to appropriate government cash. "There's no way there will be a bridge there," Roman Bessmertny, a Ukrainian official taking part in negotiations with Russia regarding the Russian-sponsored rebellion in Ukraine's eastern regions, said as recently as March, 2016. "Russians will be hammering in these supports for decades. The only person who had a realistic plan for that bridge was Albert Speer, the German construction minister."

Yet, Rotenberg stuck with the task. In an interview with the daily Kommersant, he said the Kerch bridge would be his last big project, something for which he would like to be remembered;he wouldn't even try to make money on it. Given the sensitive nature of the project -- it is, after all, tangible evidence of Russia caring about Crimea and its residents -- Putin must have felt safe to entrust it to his old friend following such assurances. He has also made it clear publicly that he'd hold him responsible. While taking a picture with the construction workers on Tuzla island, the president beckoned the billionaire: "Come here, Arkady, don't hide. If anything goes wrong, we'll blame you."

In February, the Russian government approved the final design -- which Rotenberg had mostly outsourced -- and a new cost estimate, further reduced to 211.9 billion rubles. At times, 800 engineers and technical experts worked on it, in the Soviet tradition of cramming to meet a politically-motivated deadline. 

The design looks majestic in a video presentation, but Rotenberg is flying by the seat of his pants here. Nothing quite like this bridge -- the longest in Russia and potentially the longest combined rail and car bridge in Europe -- has ever been built. The bottom of the Kerch Strait is covered with some 50 meters (154 feet) of silt. The design rests on the assumption that each of the 595 bridge supports will rest solidly on hollow steel pipes driven into the sea bottom under the silt with extremely powerful pile drivers. The 70-to-80-meter-long pipes are supposed to sit at an angle to the bottom so that fewer of them are needed. Since they must be welded together in place from shorter pipes -- no Russian factory can make, and no transport can deliver, the full required length -- the technical difficulties for the bridge builders become almost overwhelming. Besides, Rotenberg, under Western sanctions as a close Putin friend, could not obtain enough of the pile drivers, which are not made in Russia.

At the end of March, Rotenberg brought in the only company in Russia that could try to implement the design: Mostotrest. A Soviet institution founded in 1930, it has built most of Russia's big, complicated bridges, and it's not under sanctions, so it can buy the necessary equipment. Privatized by its workers in the 1990s, the firm couldn't sustain its debt burden, and last year, 94 percent of its stock was consolidated by a pension fund owned by the state railroad monopoly. 

Mostotrest is now charged with most of the construction work on the bridge. It's the story of Mostotrest's life, being brought in at the final stage of the project by well-connected tender winners after they realize they can spend or steal the money but not do the job, a former top Mostotrest engineer told me. The company has picked up a number of such projects in Moscow after losing tenders to the mayor's friends. Now, it has come into the Crimea bridge project with guns blazing.

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.

Like the Mostotrest engineer, 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. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net