Trucker Putin opens Russia bridge link with annexed Crimea





By Gleb Stolyarov

THE KERCH STRAIT (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin, driving a truck, unveiled the auto section of a new road-and-rail bridge linking Russia to the annexed Crimean peninsula on Tuesday, defying Ukraine which said the move showed cynical disregard for international law.

Putin, at the wheel of an orange heavy KAMAZ dump-truck, drove 19 km (12 miles) across the bridge from the Kerch Strait. Some Russians are calling it "Putin's bridge", designed to link Crimea into Russia's transport network.

At a ceremony broadcast live on state TV, Putin, dressed in blue jeans, was met by cheering workers on the Crimean side after driving the truck in a convoy of vehicles.

"At last, thanks to your talent, this project, this miracle, has happened," Putin told the workers.

In Kiev, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said: "The illegal construction of the Kerch bridge is the latest evidence of the Kremlin's disregard for international law.

"It is particularly cynical that its opening is happening on the eve of the latest anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean-Tatar people by the Stalin regime."

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, drawing sanctions and prompting a deterioration in ties with the West. Many in Russia saw the move as restoring Moscow's rule over a historically Russian region.

Built at a cost of 223 billion roubles ($3.60 billion), the bridge will be the longest dual-purpose span in Europe. The Kremlin said it would be opened to cars on Wednesday and the rail section was due to be completed at the end of 2019.

"Putin initiated this project himself. Many didn't believe these plans were possible," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday ahead of the ceremony.

"This is an extremely important day from this point of view and in a practical sense and in symbolic terms."

The road stretch of the bridge was due to be completed by the end of 2018, but the opening was brought forward at Putin's request.

Putin inspected the bridge in March ahead of the presidential election he won by a landslide, saying it was important to have the link to the Black Sea peninsula open for the summer tourist season.

The opening ceremony drew criticism from the West.

"France condemns the construction by Russia of the Kerch Bridge, which deprives Ukraine of full access and the use of its internationally recognized territorial waters," a French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said.

U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert in a statement on Tuesday said the "bridge serves as a reminder of Russia's ongoing willingness to flout international law" and said it was an attempt by Russia "to solidify its unlawful seizure and its occupation of Crimea" and impede navigation of the Kerch Strait.

The spokesperson of the European External Action Service said in a statement on Tuesday the bridge was "another violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

"The European Union continues to condemn the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia and will not recognize this violation of international law," the spokesperson said.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov; Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev, Richard Lough in Paris and Lisa Lambert in Washington; Editing by Janet Lawrence and James Dalgleish)

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