The transport route over the Kerch Strait consists of two bridges – railway bridge and motorway bridge. The motorway part of the bridge that connects the Kerch and Taman peninsulas opened on May 15, 2018. A year and a half later (on December 25, 2019), occupants presented a railway connection for passengers. Cargo railway connection opened on June 30, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered to build the bridge over the Kerch Strait almost immediately after the occupation of Crimea – on March 19, 2014. This decision did not take into consideration the economic necessity or ecological harm. There was no expert analysis of this decision. Russian authorities just decided that the construction has to finish as soon as possible. The formal ordering customer of the project was a Federal government agency, "Directorate of federal motor routes 'Taman'."
For quite a long time, no Russian or international companies dared to get involved in this project. Some companies were afraid of the international sanctions. Others were not sure this project could be engineered. It is worth noting that those doubts do have a rationale. The occupying authorities did not rush to conduct a geological survey. Besides, this area is a very active seismic zone. Earthquakes here can reach 8 to 9 points. In addition, there is a mud volcano right next to the existing bridge. It erupts once every ten years. The ground in the area is very muddy and unstable. And in winter, there is a lot of ice that had destroyed a previous Soviet bridge in 1944.
Long story short, the main constructor was "Stroigazmontazh,” and a subcontracting company was “Mostotrest.” Both those companies are connected to Putin’s old friend Arkadii Rotenberg. Analysts believe that because of the high speed of construction and limited resources, Rotenberg's companies did not earn anything on this project. Rotenberg himself, however, received the title of Hero of labor from Putin personally.
According to the information available to the media, the preliminary budget of this project was 150 billion RUB. That included 86 billion RUB for pre-construction activities and an additional 51 billion RUB for building roads that connect the bridge to the rest of the communication. However, when the project was ready, the project's price reached 227.9 billion RUB (around $4 billion).
During all three years, while the bridge was being built, Russian propaganda transmitted information about the project's unbelievable speed of construction and technical uniqueness. Propaganda also claimed that the cost of the bridge was relatively small. However, comparing the Kerch bridge to Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge, the longest bridge in the world, built by China.
Let’s compare two bridges.
Kerch bridge :
Length: 19 km
Period of construction: 02.2016 - 12.2019
Cost of the project: ≈ $4 billion.
Cost per km. ≈ $210 million.
Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge:
Length: 164.8 km
Period of construction: 04.2008 - 06.2011
Cost of the project: ≈ $10 billion.
Cost per km. ≈ $60 million.
This kind of enormous spending has, of course, geopolitical and military justification for Russia. This is clear not just from the scale of financing but also from the logic according to which builders were developing supporting infrastructure. Some experts believe that the main parameters of the bridge were specifically designed to set barriers to free navigation in the Kerch Strait and Azov sea. The width and height of the bridge's main level are lower than similar bridges built around the world (including bridges built in Russia). This structural characteristic limits the size of ships that can access the Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea, which leads to Russian control over the Strait. Therefore, the motorway bridge is too low, and smaller ships cannot pass under it and have to use the main passage. Therefore, Russia now has full control over the entrance to the Azov sea and can block the passage at any point (this happened on November 25, 2018). In turn, this gives Russia an instrument of control over the economic development of Eastern Ukraine.
Needless to say that Russian blockage of the Kerch Strait violated the international right to freedom of sea routes that is established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This also violates the Ukraine-Russia bilateral agreement on the use of the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait.
Destruction of Tuzla island
During the construction of the bridge, Russians have almost destroyed the Tuzla island.
Russia has created a dam from the side of the Taman peninsula, which in fact, connected Tuzla island to Russia. Meanwhile, Tuzla had a high environmental value. According to an expert in biology, Dr. V. Kolomiichuk Tuzla used to be a home for five plant species that are considered endangered in Ukraine. Russia builds a 1300 meter long dam from the side of Crimea and another 5000 meters from the side of Taman. This new barrier in the middle of the Strait changed the water flow in the Strait. And that, in turn, influenced currents and migration of plankton. Unfortunately, it is impossible to further study those processes from a distance.
Tuzla Island on satellite images 2009 and 2019 (Source: Google Earth)
During construction, the Ukrainian Office of the Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea investigated a criminal case concerning violation of ecological safety (art. 236 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine) by companies that conducted the construction of the Kerch bridge.
According to the investigation materials, the change in the chemical content of water caused by construction will kill lots of species. Those include dolphins, which are endangered in the Black sea region. According to the Institute of Water and Amelioration of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine, the presumable damage to the environment of the Black and Azov seas will equal at least 10 billion UAH.
Hydrology of the Kerch Strait
After the construction of the bridge finished, specialists notice a serious change in the seasonal dynamic of water levels, temperature, and currents. In the summer, water heats up to 30 degrees Celsius and can completely freeze in winter. Because of the newly constructed support columns, the movement of ice in the Strait became more complicated.
Based on the data received from NASA in 2017, experts see that the movement of ice in the Strait started in early February. Therefore, blocks of ice covered the whole northern part of the Strait in the Azov sea. This ice could not move between the columns and concentrated there. Therefore, it turned into a dam. This kind of ice dam can kill the fish that migrates in the Strait. It can also ruin the shoreline. Azov sea, like any other shallow sea, has a very rich fauna. Any change in seasonal weather dynamic can lead to critical situations.
In addition, before installing the supporting columns of the bridge, builders deepened the bottom of the Strait. This led to the pollution of water by mud and sand, which kill plankton and fish eggs.
The scale of pollution can be very well seen in pictures taken by the satellite.
Constructed bridge kills dolphins
The Azov sea is home to two species of dolphins that are endangered in Ukraine. Those species are under the protection of the Agreement on Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and contiguous Atlantic area. The water area of the Kerch strait is one of the 18 territories that are essential to the cetaceans of this region.
After the bridge was constructed, scientists noticed an increase in the dynamic of the death of dolphins. From time to time, tourists see corpses of dolphins on the shores.
Ecologists assume that the most important factor contributing to the death of dolphins is noise pollution of the sea due to the proximity of sites of sand extraction, installment of supporting columns, and further operation of the bridge. In addition, the life of dolphins is further influenced by changes in migration routes of the fish.
The bridge that was hastily built to meet Kremlin's ambitions kills everything on its way. Nature already showed once that this kind of structure should not be built in that place. The bridge, built by the Soviet authorities in 1944, lasted for only three months. How long will Putin's bridge stand?