Another Russian Bridge to Nowhere—Except to Oligarchs’ Pockets

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 123

Sakhalin Island coast (Source: TASS)

Like his Soviet predecessors, Russian President Vladimir Putin favors spending money on giant projects in order to demonstrate his and his country’s greatness to both its citizens and others. But in contrast to Soviet leaders, he has an additional reason for doing so. Such mega endeavors, be they the Sochi Olympiad or the Kerch Bridge, are a far easier way for Putin to divert tax money into the pockets of loyal oligarchs than spending government funds on schools, hospitals or other essential infrastructure—things he has allowed to decay during his tenure. It is far easier to overstate the price of giant projects (, August 29, 2016;, September 5, 2018;, August 30, 2016; September 5, 2018). Thus, every time one such undertaking is “completed,” the Kremlin leader, sooner or later, announces another, often without much concern as to whether it is a good idea or can even be realized.

The latest such project—one Putin came out in support of in July and that has already been included in government planning documents for the next decade (RBC, July 24)—is truly enormous and almost equally absurd. It calls for building two bridges or tunnels: the first between mainland Russia and Sakhalin Island, and the second linking Sakhalin to Japan’s Hokkaido Island. This project presents far more difficulties than the Kerch Bridge, linking Russian-occupied Crimea with Krasnodar Krai, in mainland Russia. It would ultimately service far fewer people in Sakhalin and the Russian mainland than the bridge over the Kerch Strait. And some experts suggest it could cost upwards of $100 billion—a price tag Moscow cannot afford to meet by itself, which is why it is seeking aid from Japan. Yet, this financing would allow for the diversion of massive amounts of public funds to Putin’s friends and supporters even if, as is quite likely, neither bridge/tunnel is ever finished (, September 4).

Until the middle of the 19th century, Russian maps showed Sakhalin as a peninsula attached to the mainland, rather than the island it in fact is. But since that time, Russian officials have periodically suggested building either a bridge or a tunnel between the mainland and Sakhalin, although Moscow’s latest notion of building a bridge or tunnel between Sakhalin and Japan is something new. The history of these projects as well as the views of experts and foreign policy specialists strongly suggests that however much Putin may want to see them realized, neither is going to be built, for a slew of financial, technical and political reasons. First and foremost, the economic rationale for the mainland–Sakhalin bridge/tunnel is undermined by the absence of infrastructure and populations on both sides. And in the case of the Sakhalin–Japan extension, the project is hampered by political concerns in Tokyo.

In the 1920s, after the discovery of oil fields on Sakhalin, the new Soviet government talked about building a bridge to the island; but nothing came of that. Then, in 1950, Joseph Stalin took a secret decision to build it. Work began without any consideration of the costs or the fact that the bridge would literally link two places without roads or railways and would thus serve no purpose at all. “This was the building project of the century, the BAM [Baikal–Amur Mainline railroad] of that time. Here worked heroes,” Russian historian Vladimir Podtsechnikov recently told Lyubov Barabashova of Radio Svoboda. And as in all such projects, quality and safety were sacrificed in pursuit of what was an impossible and even absurd goal (, August 26).

Had Stalin not died in 1953, work on this bridge might have continued. But just 22 days after the dictator’s death, his former secret police chief denounced the project as meaningless for the economy and killed it. No one took the idea seriously again until 1999, when some Moscow officials began discussing it. That renewed interest also ultimately went nowhere; but in 2008, the Putin administration returned to it once again and even authorized preliminary studies. A decade later, officials say, nothing remains of the ideas behind the 2008 plans, except the dream of doing something beyond the ordinary and even roping in the Japanese to help pay for it (TASS, September 7, 2017).

Tokyo, however, has shown little interest in the idea. On the one hand, it still does not have a peace treaty with Moscow regarding World War II and is locked in a territorial dispute with the Russian Federation over the Kurile Islands (see EDM, October 28, 2015; December 13, 2016). And on the other hand, it is put off by both the estimated price of its part of this giant project—at least $50 billion for a 42-kilometer-long undersea tunnel—and the ways in which Moscow might use such a link to draw Japan into a Russian orbit. Consequently, that part of this bridge-to-nowhere project appears dead, at least at present (, August 26).

But the other half of this project, the seven-kilometer bridge from mainland Russia to Sakhalin, looks to be on track, at least according to official declarations since Putin signaled his support for the plan. Notably, back in 2015, Sakhalin Governor Oleg Kozhemyako said there was no reason to build the bridge because it would not be connected to anything; but now he is declaring it a vital national goal. After all, Putin is behind it (, April 21, 2015; Rossyiskaya Gazeta, July 5, 2018).

As Radio Svoboda’s Barabashova noted, the Sakhalin bridge project “is often compared with the Crimean [Kerch Strait] bridge. But engineers consider this comparison to be not particularly appropriate.” The water in the Sakhalin straits is four to six times deeper, the seabed is far less stable, and there are no railways or roads on either side of the proposed bridge/tunnel to feed traffic into it. This is a major contrast with the Kerch Bridge to occupied Crimea. Moreover, as others point out, there are far fewer people on Sakhalin Island—480,000 and falling—than there are on the Crimean Peninsula (close to 2.3 million, according to a 2014 Russian census—, accessed September 6), meaning that no traffic is likely to develop soon (, September 4; Kommersant, May 16).

Consequently, this project is unlikely to ever be built. Instead, it will almost certainly be shelved by Moscow after Putin leaves the scene—but probably not before he has funneled billions in Russian tax money into this project and further enriched his oligarch allies.