Despite wide international condemnation, on May 16 the Russian Federation completed the first phase of construction of a ten-mile bridge across the Kerch Strait, which links Russia proper with the occupied Crimean peninsula (TASS, May 16). The Kerch Bridge will have serious economic, social, demographic and geopolitical impacts on the region. On the one hand, this new road (and eventually rail) connection will contribute to breaking Crimea’s geographic isolation since its annexation by Russia in 2014. But additionally, the Kerch Bridge could ultimately destroy the last remnants of Ukrainian presence on the peninsula by displacing or diluting the native ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars with newcomers from the North Caucasus and other areas of the Russian mainland. On the other hand, the new bridge will also impact Russian regions east of the Strait—a potential long-term effect that has so far received much less attention.
The lives of local people in Krasnodar Krai, which lies on the eastern shore of the Kerch Strait, started to change from the outset of the Kerch Bridge’s construction. But with the road portion of the bridge now operational, certain concerns are growing about its future implications for the entire region. Specifically, Krasnodar and Crimea share a number of common economic and geo-climactic characteristics, which make both regions heavily reliant on comparable tourism. Back in 2014, the then-governor of Krasnodar Krai, Alexander Tkachov, declared that, as Crimeans’ only direct Russian neighbors, Krasnodar needed to step up and help the residents of Russia’s “newest” region (Krasnodar-region.com, March 17, 2014). Today, that magnanimity is increasingly replaced by economic pragmatism, as local fears rise that Crimean vacation resorts could become strong competition for the Kuban region (of which Krasnodar Krai is a part).
In 2017, before the Kerch Bridge was complete, less than 5 million people visited Crimea while Kuban received 16 million tourists (360tv.ru, May 16). But the new physical connection to the Russian mainland puts Crimea a mere 15 minutes by car from Kuban. The effect this will have on the growth of the peninsula’s annual tourism is highly predictable—with a likely negative mirror effect for holiday visitors to Kuban.
The Russian government’s response to these local concerns has been to argue that Crimea and Kuban will eventually merge into a unique and enormous Russian recreational and tourism area (RBC, May 15). As such, this past April, Krasnodar Governor Veniamin Kondratiev and the head of the occupation authorities of Crimea, Sergey Aksenov, jointly agreed to create a “Golden Ring of the Bosporan Kingdom” made up of tourist sites and attractions on both sides of the Kerch Strait (Crimea.ria.ru, April 20). Most are convinced that such initiatives will have a positive effect on Kuban’s regional economy. Yet, some experts warn that, in the coming years, the number of tourists to Crimea could reach 10 million, while the numbers coming to visit Krasnodar will simultaneously drop, thus significantly harming the latter region (Krasnodarmedia.su, May 17). Interestingly, the de facto authorities of the separatist occupied Georgian region of Abkhazia have voiced hopes that tourists visiting Crimea and nearby Sochi will come to their republic instead (Sputnik-abkhazia.ru, April 26).
The construction of the Kerch Bridge was supplemented by development work on Crimean logistical infrastructure—namely, the continuation of the road from Kerch to Sevastopol (the so-called “Taurida” highway). Such infrastructure upgrades will logically also be needed on the eastern side of the Kerch Strait. Tellingly, within 12 hours of the Kerch Bridge opening, the total number of cars driving over it reached 14,000. With such high volumes, it is possible to assume that in the summer months (that is, the height of tourist season), the Krasnodar authorities will face enormous local traffic jams. In order to prevent this, Russia is planning to add several convenient road junctions, but these likely will not be completed until the end of 2019. These roads (highways A-290 and A-16), because of their strategic importance, will be under federal control (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 24). According to the head of Krasnodar Krai’s Temryuksky District (at the eastern end of the Kerch Bridge), the local area will face unprecedented pressure from increased traffic (Temruk.info). Krasnodar city, meanwhile, plans to construct a “Western Bypass” to logistically circumvent the regional administrative capital (Expert.ru, May 23). The road will allow travelers to directly reach Crimea or several Russian Black Sea ports—Novorossiysk, Sochi, Taman, Kavkaz and Gelendzik—while avoiding having to pass through the center of Krasnodar.
In addition to the above-mentioned economic and transit concerns, Krasnodar Krai will be taking on a share of responsibility for the security of the Kerch Bridge and the associated local roads and infrastructure. As Governor Kondratiev noted, this is the most crucial task for his region and for the Anti-Terrorism Commission of Krasnodar Krai (Admkrai.krasnodar.ru, April 10).
The opening of the Kerch Bridge thus raises the following important considerations:
First, since 2014, international attention was fully concentrated on the bridge’s impacts on Crimea. Whereas, little focus was paid to the other side of the Kerch Strait. However, Krasnodar Krai and the wider Kuban region of the Northwest Caucasus are going to face huge changes in terms of upgrading and expanding their local infrastructure.
Second, following the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games and the anschluss of Crimea, the Kremlin has been taking strong steps to enhance its presence in this strategic and vulnerable region (see EDM, February 12, May 8, 22, 31).
Third, the bridge could trigger contentious demographic processes such as the “Caucasianization” of Crimea via the in-migration of North Caucasus residents of various ethnicities and nationalities. At the same time, the bridge could greatly facilitate the migration of Slavic Russians to the small peninsula. Crimea’s occupation administration estimates that, in 10–20 years, the local population will double (Allcrimea.net, March 31, 2016).
Fourth, the apparent success of completing the Kerch Bridge is likely to encourage the Kremlin to pursue even more ambitious and expensive (and thus ripe for corruption—see EDM, November 28, 2016) mega-projects in other parts of the Russian Federation. For example, President Vladimir Putin has already discussed the opportunity to build a bridge to Sakhalin Island, which would be three times more expensive than the Kerch Bridge (Forbes.ru, May 16, 2018).
Fifth, any strategy to counterbalance the Russian Federation in the Northern Black Sea region (“Pontic Steppe”) will need to combine both military assets as well as greater economic and social stability across the region, from Odesa to Mariupol.
Though the Kremlin is celebrating the completion of the Kerch Bridge, it is nevertheless a double-edged sword for the local population.