Ukraine raids Kiev offices of Russian state media

Russian President Vladimir Putin drives a construction truck across the new 19 km road-and-rail Crimean Bridge over the Kerch Strait linking mainland Russia to Moscow-annexed Crimea during its opening ceremony yesterday. — AFP

KERCH: Russian President Vladimir Putin drove a truck across a new bridge linking mainland Russia to Moscow-annexed Crimea yesterday, triggering a fierce reaction from Kiev. Russian state television showed Putin dressed in jeans and a casual jacket sit behind the wheel of a construction truck with workers to drive 19 km across the bridge, which links the Taman peninsula in southern Russia to Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014.

“I want to sincerely congratulate you with this remarkable, festive and, in the full sense of the word, historic day,” Putin told workers upon arrival on the Crimean side of the bridge. “In different historical eras, even under the tsar, people were dreaming of building this bridge,” Putin told cheering workers. He was referring to Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, who first proposed such a bridge, but the outbreak of World War I prevented it going ahead. Another unsuccessful attempt was made in the 1930s under Joseph Stalin. During World War II the occupying Nazis also began building a bridge but abandoned the project.

The Russian leader, who was re-elected for a fourth Kremlin term in March extending his long rule, pledged to build more of “such projects” across Russia. The Crimean Bridge overtakes Lisbon’s Vasco da Gama Bridge as the longest in Europe. Built at a cost of 228 billion rubles ($3.7 billion), the new structure connects the southern Krasnodar region with the Crimean city of Kerch, spanning a strait between the Black and Azov seas.

Ukraine’s condemnation

Ukraine, which along with most of the international community has not recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, condemned the project which was personally championed by Putin. “The Russian occupying powers, which have temporarily occupied Crimea, are continuing to act outside international law,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman told AFP in an interview. Ukraine has also previously complained that the construction has damaged the environment and that larger ships will be unable to get through to its ports on the Azov Sea.

The European Union also criticized what it called a fresh assault on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. “This constitutes another violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia,” said a statement by a spokesperson for the office of the European Union’s foreign policy service, which said the bloc continues to refuse to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s security service raided the offices of Russian state media in Kiev and detained one local journalist on suspicions of treason, moves the chief editor of Russia’s RT television suggested were linked to the bridge opening. The chief editor of the Kremlin-funded channel, Margarita Simonyan, wrote on Twitter that “Kiev decided to take revenge on us for the Crimean Bridge,” after the raids on the offices of RIA Novosti state news agency, which is part of the same media group as RT.

Olena Gitlyanska, a spokeswoman for the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), said Russian-controlled media were being “used as tools in a hybrid war against Ukraine”. Earlier RIA Novosti reporter Kyrylo Vyshynsky, a Ukrainian national who received a Russian passport in 2015 according to the presidential decree published on the official Kremlin website, was detained near his house in Kiev. “Currently, the preliminary qualification of the criminal offence (…) is treason,” a representative of the prosecutor’s office, Igor Ponochovny, told journalists during a joint briefing with the SBU official.

SBU deputy chief Viktor Kononenko accused Vyshynsky of travelling to Crimea in 2014 to carry out “subversive” reporting and later collaborating with separatist groups in eastern Ukraine. He said Vyshynsky received ample funding to carry out his work. “Today we can say that he received 53,000 a month for such activities,” said Kononenko. “The money is subsequently distributed to the groups and people involved. That was the reason for the searches.”

European Union and US sanctions have targeted those involved in building the bridge, principally Putin’s close ally, businessman Arkady Rotenberg, whose company Stroygazmontazh won the construction contract. The annexation of the peninsula in 2014 was condemned by Kiev and the West as an illegal land grab but applauded in Russia. The peninsula has been hard to reach from southern Russia with long queues of vehicles often forming to board ferries, which cannot always run in winter storms, so the easiest way across is to fly.

Because of blocks imposed by Kiev, in addition to Western sanctions, a large amount of food is currently shipped to the peninsula from Russia, so the bridge will play an important role in reducing the region’s reliance on sea transport. The four-lane road bridge is opening ahead of schedule as it was due to be completed in December. Once it opens for traffic today, it will be able to carry up to 40,000 cars per day. A railway bridge is not yet finished and has a deadline of the end of 2019. A connecting highway from Kerch to the regional capital of Simferopol is set for completion in 2020. – AFP