This week, Vladimir Putin officially opened the recently-constructed Kerch Strait Bridge that the Russian president commissioned to connect the newly-annexed Crimean Peninsula to the Russian mainland. To commemorate the occasion, Mr. Putin led a convoy of new trucks across the $3 billion, 12-mile bridge, the longest span in Europe.
Just in case you were wondering, the Russian state news agency TASS reported that Mr. Putin did have a truck driving license. He managed to keep his shirt on as he proclaimed “Let’s hit the road!” and jumped into the cab of the lead truck to start the procession.
This episode puts an exclamation point on one of Mr. Putin’s most consequential decisions — the annexation of the strategic peninsula jetting out into the Black Sea. The decision to seize “Krim,” as it is pronounced in Russian and Ukrainian, marked the beginning of the end of any faint hopes the Putin government wanted a relationship with the West.
The bridge not only connected the former part of Ukraine to Russia, but also shut off Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov from large ships. Shipping experts say 30 percent of the maritime traffic that used to visit Mariupol and Berdyansk will now be restricted from entering. I’ve been to Mariupol and spent significant time in this historically important mercantile port, historically a thriving shipping link to the old world of Central Asia. Now it is blackened by the soot from the nearby steel plant, and the water polluted. The reduction in shipping traffic will only worsen the outlook for this economically repressed region.
Military strategists worry that Mr. Putin would attempt to acquire a “land bridge” to shorten Russian supply routes to the newly-seized territory, relegated to ferry or air links only. With the bridge, that point in now moot.
The investment of $3.2 billion for the bridge is no small amount for the anemic Russian economy, still suffering under Western sanctions, although the robust rebound in oil prices on international markets will actually help. Having just been elected to another six-year term, President Putin has made many promises to the Russian public, mainly focused on social spending and domestic priorities. The fact that the bridge was built anyway means the spending was deliberate and intended to make a very clear point.
That point: To confirm to the world that Russia has no desire to move back into the good graces of Brussels and Washington. The Kremlin is done waiting for some type of detente with the Trump administration. The image of Mr. Putin driving across the bridge says to the world Russia is now firmly in the camp with China, Iran, North Korea and Syria in their refusal to fit into the “Western” political model, and their desire to fashion a new axis to challenge the West militarily and economically.
President Trump, along with all of the other issues on his plate as he cleans up the mess of the Obama administration, can add the Kerch Strait Bridge challenge to his list. It is common knowledge that Mr. Putin has influence with North Korea, and Moscow’s new ally, China. In today’s world, all the regional conflicts are related.
Washington Examiner columnist Tom Rogan is openly encouraging Ukraine — backed by the American military — to attack the bridge from the air, arguing that the casualties would be “minimized” if done at the right time. Nothing like a representative of the American media, who has never served, calling for a war with the world’s largest nuclear power. I’m sure he’s willing to enlist straight away to help make this happen.