President Vladimir Putin on Monday stood in the driver’s cabin of a train for the official opening of a railway bridge that links annexed Crimea to southern Russia, with the launch drawing sharp criticism from Ukraine and the EU.
During his ride from Kerch in Crimea in a shortened three-carriage train, Putin also spent time drinking tea with engineers on the 227-billion-ruble ($3.6-billion) project.
The rail bridge, which Putin praised as “magnificent,” is 19 kilometres (12 miles) long. The bridge for car traffic opened in May last year when the president drove a truck across it.
The total rail route from the northwestern city of Saint Petersburg to the Crimean port city of Sevastopol covers a distance of 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles).
Putin said the bridge would restore rail links to Crimea severed in 2014 when Moscow annexed the peninsula, sparking an ongoing separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more 13,000 lives.
The company of Putin’s close ally, billionaire businessman Arkady Rotenberg, won the construction contract for the bridge. He sold the company last month.
Putin told workers an anecdote about receiving an emotional call from “your main boss with the simple Russian surname Rotenberg,” after the completion of a key stage of the project.
“He called me at night and spoke in such a voice that I asked him ‘Have you been drinking?’” the Russian leader said.
The coverage of the project has been reminiscent of Soviet infrastructure projects, with a newsreader on state-controlled Rossiya 24 television channel calling the opening “without exaggeration historic.”
Russia says it is the longest railway bridge in Europe.
‘Breach of Ukraine sovereignty’
Ukraine was unhappy about both the rail link and Putin’s presence at the opening.
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s representative office for Crimea said in a statement on Facebook that the rail link and Putin’s visit to Crimea were “a gross breach by the Russian side of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
It showed “disregard by the Kremlin of the universally recognised principles and norms of international law,” the statement said.
The European Union also sharply criticised the opening of the rail link, terming it “another violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty”.
The EU statement stressed that the railway on the Kerch bridge was built “without Ukraine’s consent” and was “yet another step towards a forced integration of the illegally annexed peninsula”.
Additionally, it added, “the bridge limits the passage of vessels through the Kerch Strait to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea” which it said must remain unhindered under international law.
“The European Union does not and will not recognise the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia,” it said.
The European Union this month extended by another six months economic sanctions on Russia imposed over the conflict in Ukraine.
Earlier this month Putin and Zelensky met for the first face-to-face talks in Paris and agreed some measures to de-escalate the Ukraine conflict.