Russia President Vladimir Putin has inaugurated a road-and-rail bridge connecting southern Russia to the Crimean Peninsula by driving a heavy truck on it himself.
Putin, behind the wheel of a construction truck, drove 19 kilometers on Tuesday on the auto section of the road-and-rail bridge built over Kerch Strait, which is now the longest in Europe.
“At last, thanks to your hard work, your talent, this project, this miracle has happened,” Putin told the crowd of workers.
He was later met by cheering workers at the other side of the bridge.
“I want to sincerely congratulate you with this remarkable, festive and, in the full sense of the word, historic day,” Putin told workers on arrival on the Crimean side. “In different historical eras, even under the tsar, people were dreaming of building this bridge.”
The president was referring to Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, who first proposed such a bridge; but the outbreak of World War I prevented the plan from going forward.
The bridge was expected to be fully constructed by the end of 2018, but was completed six months ahead of schedule and opens to traffic on Wednesday.
Being Moscow’s only direct road link to the peninsula, the bridge has another section for trains, which is set to be unveiled next year. The project, which cost $3.69 billion, will be able to handle 40,000 cars a day and reduce Crimea’s reliance on sea transport.
The construction of the bridge has, however, prompted anger in Ukraine, the United States, and other Western countries. The West says Russia “annexed” the then-Ukrainian territory of Crimea when crisis erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Western countries also accuse Russia of having a hand in the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Moscow denies the allegation.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Moscow of having illegally constructed the bridge, which he branded as “the latest evidence of the Kremlin’s disregard for international law.”
A spokeswoman for the European Union (EU)’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also said the construction of the bridge “constitutes another violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia.”
In a statement, the US State Department, claimed, “Crimea is part of Ukraine,” and accused Moscow of trying to solidify its “unlawful seizure and its occupation” by linking the country to Crimea.
“Russia’s construction of the bridge serves as a reminder of Russia’s ongoing willingness to flout international law,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in the statement.
She said that “the United States condemned Russia’s construction and partial opening” of the bridge, which she said was carried out “without the permission of the government of Ukraine.”
Nauert also warned that all Crimea-related US sanctions on Moscow “will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.”
The United States and Western governments have imposed rounds of security and economic sanctions on Russia over Crimea.