At the end of February 2014, the key facilities of the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea were taken over by masked Russian troops without insignia. Russian flags were hung on the administration buildings of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
On March 16, 2014, the so-called referendum was held in Crimea that has not been acknowledged by the international community. According to the official data, most voters were in favour of separation from Ukraine. Two days later, President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of the peninsula by the Russian Federation. The United States and the European Union imposed economic sanctions on Russia. The Russian authorities describe the 2014 events as “a renewal of historical justice.”
The Crimean Bridge was not only supposed to solve practical problems related to transport connection between the peninsula and Russia but also had a symbolic dimension. The great construction showed that the Russian authorities care for new citizens and that Russia can implement a significant investment in a short time.
During World War II, at the end of the Crimea occupation, Germany began preparatory work on the construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge. However, they were defeated by the Red Army during the Crimean offensive. The Soviets started to build the railway bridge. It was opened in November 1944, but at the end of February 1945, the ice floe seriously damaged its structure, and the decision was made to demolish the bridge.
The comments of many Ukrainian experts published in the Ukrainian media were based on that story – the Russians are not able to build a bridge due to the difficult natural conditions.
After World War II, the idea of construction was still alive, but in the USSR the project was not implemented due to a lack of funds. The idea reappeared in Russia in the early 1990s. Then, after the dissolution of the USSR, Crimea was within the borders of independent Ukraine. Many Russian politicians believed that the peninsula should be annexed to Russia, and the construction of the bridge would strengthen Crimea’s ties with Russia.
Russia and Ukraine discussed the idea of building the bridge in 2006, 2008 and 2010. On December 17, 2013, the governments of both countries signed a protocol on joint actions to create a new transport corridor. Events in Crimea prevented further joint implementation of the project.
Ukraine has strongly criticised the construction of the bridge. The authorities in Kyiv consider it as an illegal investment in their country, which they did not allow to happen. The U.S. and the European Union reacted similarly, imposing sanctions on companies and people associated with that investment.
In December 2018, the General Assembly of the United Nations backed the Ukrainian resolution on the “militarisation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (Ukraine), as well as parts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.” Sixty-six countries voted in favour, 19 against and 72 abstained from voting. The resolution also condemned the “construction and opening of the bridge through the Kerch Strait”.
According to the Ministry of Infrastructure of Ukraine, the construction of the Crimean bridge also limits shipping traffic to Ukrainian ports on the coast of the Sea of Azov. Since 2014, i.e. since the annexation of Crimea, the Kerch Strait has been under full control of Russia. Larger ocean ships of the popular Panamax size have not entered Ukrainian ports since February 2016.
The construction of the bridge exacerbated the situation between Russia and Ukraine in the area of the Sea of Azov. In April 2018, the Russians began to stop and control ships passing through the Kerch Strait and heading to or from the Ukrainian ports. Between April and August 2018, the Russians checked more than 150 ships.
Kyiv began to mention the economic blockade of Ukrainian ports imposed by Russia. However, the roots of the conflict on the Sea of Azov should be searched much deeper. When independent Ukraine was established, the main problems in relations with Russia included the border demarcation on land and sea.
The conflict escalated in 2003. In September, Russian workers began building a causeway from the Taman Peninsula (Krasnodar Krai) towards Ukraine’s small Tuzla island, located in the Kerch Strait. The Russians claimed that Tuzla is not an island, but a part of the spit. In fact, in 1925, Tuzla island split from the narrow spit due to natural processes. The spit is an extension of the Taman Peninsula.
In response, Ukraine sent some troops to the waters around the island. The Russian workers stopped working only about 100 metres in front of Ukrainian soldiers’ raft. Kyiv formed a permanent post of border guards in Tuzla. In December 2003, Russia and Ukraine signed a Treaty on Cooperation in the Use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. It included a clause indicating that it is historically internal waters of Russia and Ukraine. Simultaneously, it was decided that a separate contract should mark the border on the Sea of Azov. The talks lasted for many years, but the agreement was not reached. Tuzla was annexed along with Crimea in 2014. It became the foundation for the Crimean Bridge.
After the annexation of Crimea Russia strengthened its naval forces in the Sea of Azov. Due to the tense situation, Ukraine decided to do the same. On September 23, 2018, two ships of the Ukrainian Navy sailed under the Crimean Bridge.
On the morning of November 25, 2018, three small Ukrainian navy ships, two artillery boats and a tugboat sailed to the Kerch Strait. They sailed from Odesa to Berdyansk, so they had to cross the Kerch Strait, which separates the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov and sail under the bridge.
However, this time, the situation ended differently. The command of the Ukrainian Navy claims that its units worked following the procedures. But on Sunday morning, Russian traffic controllers in ports located on both sides of the Kerch Strait did not respond to the calls of Ukrainian ships.
In turn, the Russians say that three Ukrainian naval ships violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – ”illegally entered the temporarily closed water area of Russia’s territorial waters” and crossed Russia’s border.
Russian coast guard boats swam up to the Ukrainian vessels and called them to stop. The Russian frontier guard ship “Don” rammed the Ukrainian tugboat and severely damaged it.
The situation escalated. In the evening, the command of the Ukrainian Navy decided to leave the Kerch Strait and return to Odesa. Russian vessels – six coast guard warships and two ships of the Black Sea Fleet – started to chase the Ukrainians.
Russian ships opened fire. The high command of the Ukrainian Naval Forces underlines it happened in international waters after the Ukrainians had left the 12-mile zone of the Russian territorial sea.
The Russian FSB special forces have boarded Ukrainian ships, captured 24 sailors – as it turned out, six of them were injured during the shelling. Ukrainian sailors are kept in Russian detention and await trial despite protests, also from the international community.
People living in Crimea expected that the prices of goods would fall as a result of the bridge opening. For now, these expectations have not come true. It is also assumed that the opening of the bridge will increase the number of tourists, especially when it comes to the railway bridge.