Is the Multi $Billion Crimean Bridge Becoming Another Flashpoint?

Kiev has sparked a crisis by seizing Russian vessels in the Kerch Strait; the Ukrainian authorities have been asked to back down before the situation deteriorates further. The Kerch Strait connects the Black Sea and Azov Sea, and Russia to Crimea.

The construction of a bridge from Russia to the peninsula across the Strait was started after the Crimeans voted overwhelmingly in 2014 to rejoin Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed hope that the bridge would be ready by the summer of 2018.

Russia has accused Ukraine of piracy, after Ukraine’s move in the Sea of Azov now risks becoming the next flashpoint in the Ukrainian war.

On March 25, Ukraine detained the Russian-flagged fishing vessel Nord, which was allegedly operating in Ukrainian waters, in the Sea of Azov. Registered in Crimea, the vessel and its ten crew members were escorted to the port of Berdiansk and are currently awaiting trial in Ukraine.

On April 10, Ukrainian authorities arrested another Russian vessel, a dredger ship, temporarily docked in the Odessa-region port of Yuzhny, for allegedly carrying out illegal sand extraction works in occupied Crimea, Russian news agency TASS reported last month.

Ukraine has expressed the desire to police the Strait, and the Ukrainian authorities are preparing “convoy escorts” to limit Russian water traffic. In an interview in the Observer with the former deputy minister of defense of Ukraine, the admiral of the reserve Igor Kabanenko explained Ukraine’s stance.

According to him, Kiev is preparing military convoys to escort ships passing through the Kerch Strait.

“We should prepare for various negative scenarios until we blockade the passage of vessels across the Kerch Strait to Mariupol and Berdyansk, military convoys may not be needed, but under certain conditions this may be the only way to ensure the safety of all at the junction of the two seas,” Kabanenko said.

In this case, the admiral said, “any measures to detain or inspect convoy ships will be qualified as an attack on a military convoy, that is, an act of aggression, with the corresponding rights and duties of warships to repel it.”

As a measure of “deterrence”, the admiral proposed military patrols at sea. Kabanenko however said that US patrol boats “which would guarantee the capabilities of the Ukrainian Navy” have not yet been delivered to Ukraine.

Earlier, Ukrainian deputy Refat Chubarov proposed to create an international consortium that will manage the Crimean bridge “after its alienation” from Russia.

Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelian told RFE/RL that the Infrastructure Ministry and the Justice Ministry are preparing lawsuits against Russia over the “illegal construction” of the bridge to be filed to the international courts.

“We are losing a lot of money because of the limited parameters of ships, which now cannot pass under the arches of the bridge. The estimates are modest so far – tens of millions of hryvnias – but I think that losses are much larger as we are losing jobs,” Omelian complained.

But Construction.ru was assured by the press office of the Russian Federal Marine and River Transport Agency, that the limitations were for the purpose of ensuring navigation security.

The bridge has created a new controversy in The Netherlands too where seven Dutch companies and their directors working on the construction linking Russia to Crimea, was criminally charged on Friday for allegedly breaching European Union sanctions against Moscow.

NU.nl reported that the companies thought they could circumvent the European Union sanctions by only working on the Russian side of the border. But Dutch prosecutors disagreed. “This is a serious offense, undermining the EU sanction regime,” prosecutors said in a statement.

Individuals found to have breached sanctions can be sentenced to up to six years in prison or a maximum fine of 82 000 euros, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office said. Companies face even stiffer fines, up to 820 000 euros.

The prosecutors did not name the companies involved, but said the transactions under investigation took place between November 2015 and the latter part of 2017. The spokeswoman has declined to give further details.

The companies involved are alleged to have supplied machines, machine parts and other services for the construction of the 19-kilometer long bridge, the Dutch prosecutor’s office said. The EU sanctions state that European companies are not allowed to import goods from the Crimea and may not invest there, among other things.

Companies from Milsbeek and Dodewaard are implicated in breaking sanctions against Russia. De Gelderlander reported that employees of the Milsbeek company were currently in Russia for the construction of the bridge.

Without the bridge, there was no direct connection from Russia to Crimea. The bridge will open next weekend.

Russian special services have meanwhile been deployed in the waters and airspace of the Strait to prevent potential provocations by Islamists and Ukrainian special services, said Alexander Bortnikov, Head of National Anti-Terror Committee, and Director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), in a statement.

“Manpower and resources have been prepared for coordinated actions in case of terror threats against erected facilities,” Bortnikov told the Russian National Anti-Terror Committee.

As EADaily reported earlier, on April 7, a Ukrainian Volunteer Movement Organisation, OUN, announced terror attacks timed for the opening of the Crimea Bridge.