Though still two years away, the presidential elections in Russia are already on the minds of the political elite in Moscow. The sitting head of state, President Vladimir Putin, is constitutionally permitted to run again in 2018. And though most expect that he will, his public vacillations on the subject have raised an air of intrigue over the Russian political process. “I have not yet made a decision for myself,” Putin claimed two months ago in an interview with Bloomberg (Vesti, September 2). Assuming that he will stand for re-election, it is clear that the legacy of the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued development will play a key role in boosting Putin’s popularity in time for the vote. As such, the Kremlin is playing up a series of large-scale infrastructure projects on this illegally seized Ukrainian peninsula.
The Crimean annexation has dominated Russian propaganda for the past two years—a narrative aimed at both an external and internal audience. The triumphant slogan “Krym nash!” (“Crimea is ours!”) underlines the myth of the return of Russian greatness. But in fact, the “reunification” continues to create an enormous burden on the Russian economy because of the Western sanctions passed in response to the annexation as well as the large federal budget costs associated with subsidizing and restructuring Crimea and Sevastopol (see EDM, April 23, 2015; May 25, 2016). Nonetheless, Moscow feels it must demonstrate to the world that it is able to surmount all these all challenges and withstand the West’s attempts to isolate it internationally. The perception of Putin standing up to the West will thus be predicated on the Kremlin’s ability to showcase tangible successes in Crimea since the annexation.
As early as March 2014—even predating the notorious “referendum” that called for Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation—the Kremlin has pledged to build three large-scale infrastructure projects on the peninsula. These projects are a thermal power station in Sevastopol, the “Tavrida” highway (Sevastopol–Simferopol–Kerch), and the enormous Kerch Strait Bridge to connect Crimea with Russia proper. The Russian Federal Targeted Program “Social and Economic Development for Crimea and Sevastopol Until 2020” states that these three mega projects aim to eliminate constraints on transport and energy on the peninsula (Fcp.economy.gov.ru, accessed October 24).
When Russia moved to fully annex Crimea, the peninsula was still overwhelmingly dependant on Ukraine for a number of crucial supplies such as electricity, water and food. And in retaliation, in spring 2014, Kyiv cut off water supplies shipped south via the Crimean Northern Canal (Buvr.crimea.ua, April 24, 2014). In 2013, Ukraine proper sent 700 million cubic meters of water to Crimea. But in 2015, this supply was only 17.7 million (Crimea.kz, May 21, 2015). To date, chronic water scarcity in Crimea has been a disaster for the local agricultural sector.
Moreover, since autumn 2015, Ukrainian activists have put in place an economic blockade at the border; and last November, they blocked all electricity supplies coming from Ukraine to the peninsula (see EDM, October 2, 2015; January 6, 2016). The Crimean blackout lasted almost four months. Putin used these problems to showcase Russia’s ability to withstand challenges created by its “enemies.” In May 2016, the Russian president oversaw the opening of the last branch of the Kuban “Energy Bridge”—electrical transit lines that carry electricity across the Kerch Strain from Krasnodar oblast to Crimea. During the ceremony, he declared, “We managed to break through the energy blockade of Crimea within a brief period of time, and we will likewise do away with any other blockade against Russia, should someone wish to test us again” (TASS, May 11). This Russian “success” required close top-down supervision from the Kremlin.
Such top-down supervision will also be required in the three aforementioned mega infrastructure projects in Crimea, not least because each of them promises to bring economic, political and even military benefits to Russia. The building of a new 470-megawatt Thermal Power Station in Sevastopol will not only satisfy the energy requirements of this strategically vital port city, but will also help alleviate tensions between the civilian population and the military. As a result of the peninsula’s chronic rolling blackouts, the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is based out of Sevastopol, has continually chafed at having to share scarce electricity resources with civilians (Uatoday.tv, November 26, 2015) The first block of the planned Sevastopol thermal plant is expected to be commissioned by late 2017 (TASS, May 11).
The planned Tavrida highway—from Kerch to Sevastopol, via the local capital of Simferopol—also has important strategic implications for Russia. Significantly, the Tavrida highway will directly link up to the Kerch Bridge, which will connect Crimea with mainland Russia (see below). According to the government, the highway, which is expected to cost 139 billion rubles ($2.2 billion), will be the only direct route from Kerch to Simferopol. It will become operational in 2018 (Tass.ru, September 20). As such, the Tavrida highway will have a strategic military value, substantially increasing the mobility of Russian forces deployed to the peninsula from Russia. Putin is clearly concerned about this project’s completion. In March 2016, when visiting Crimea, the Russian president threatened to “hang” whoever was responsible for the delays and obstructions to completion of the highway (Rbc.ru, March 18).
The enormous, 19-kilometer-long Kerch Strait Bridge is particularly designed to demonstrate the might of Russia to the world. If it is actually completed (see EDM, July 14, 2015; May 25, 2016), this bridge will be the longest in Europe. Even more importantly, Moscow is wagering that this road-and-rail link will finally fully integrate the Crimean peninsula with the Russian economic system. Putin has declared that the Kerch Bridge must be built as soon as possible (Gazeta.ru, March 15, 2015).
It is no coincidence that these three ambitious mega projects are all expected to be completed by 2018. The goal of the Sevastopol thermal plant, the Tavrida highway and the bridge across the Kerch Strait is not simply to improve the lives of ordinary Crimeans. Rather, and perhaps more importantly, these projects are meant to showcase the Putin government’s effectiveness in time for the 2018 presidential elections.