Putin's Judo Partner Set To Build Russia's Bridge to Crimea

A man holds a Russian national flag while walking out of the cool waters of the Black Sea, as fans of winter swimming gather on a beach on the Orthodox Christmas day in the Crimean port of Yevpatoriya, January 7, 2015. Pavel Rebrov/Reuters

The first bridge connecting Russia with the annexed Crimean peninsula will be built by Russian construction magnate and personal friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Arkady Rotenberg, local business daily newspaper Vedomosti reported on Wednesday.

Initial plans for the bridge were made five years ago but the original plan for it to be a joint project between Ukraine and Russia has fallen apart due to the country's recent conflict.

Instead the Stroygazmontazh Corporation, of which Rotenberg owns 51%, has been awarded the contract for the controversial project. Two other companies were on the shortlist of potential contractors: road construction company Mostotrest, which is also partly owned by Rotenberg, and a contractor company owned by another personal friend of Putin's - Gennady Tymchenko.

Both Rotenberg and Tymchenko have had personal trade sanctions imposed on them by the EU, as they are perceived to be two of Putin's strongest supporters. Both men have continued to back the Kremlin's involvement with the separatist rebels in eastern parts of neighbouring Ukraine.

Rotenberg, who partakes in judo training with Putin, lost access to tens of millions of euros worth of property and assets in Italy after additional EU sanctions against Russia hit in September 2014.

Russia's ministry of transport is yet to confirm the reports that Rotenberg's firm will be employed to construct the bridge and when asked by Newsweek the ministry were not available for comment.

However, the Vedomosti newspaper report cites a company insider and two sources from the ministry of finance, all speaking on the condition of anonymity, who confirm the contract. The newspaper is partnered with the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, and frequently breaks stories of private deals and infighting in Russian institutions based on insider information.

The bridge between mainland Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed last spring, has been a long time in the making, with plans to create road links between mainland Russia and Crimea dating back to the end of the WWII.

This latest attempt to realise the project initially began as a joint venture between Ukraine and Russia in 2010, while president Viktor Yanukovych was still governing Ukraine. However, his deposition and Russia's annexation of Crimea has severely damaged the relationship between Kiev and Moscow, forcing Ukraine to pull out of the project in October.

Interestingly, Russia had already drafted its own unilateral plan for the bridge a month before Ukraine backed out, making the project all the more controversial as Western governments and Kiev still refuse to recognise Crimea as a part of Russia.

In October last year, Putin set the deadline for the bridge's construction as 2018, two years earlier than the date agreed while Ukraine was still part of the deal.

According to the current plan, the 19km-long bridge will cross the Kerch strait through the Tuzla spit which separates Crimea from mainland Russia's Krasnodar region. It will accommodate four car lanes and a railway link across the water, though the exact design for the construction has not been made public.

Currently there is no road linking mainland Russia and Crimea that does not pass through Ukraine, with a ferry from Krasnodar to Crimea being the most popular mode of transportation from one to the other.

Estimates surrounding the cost of the project have varied, with the Moscow Times reporting the increasing price of the project has kept it from getting off the ground so far, and arguing that tolls for passengers were likely to be put in place once the bridge was built in order for the builders to break even.

In December, Russia's transport minister Maxim Sokolov estimated the bridge would cost nearly €3 billion, making it the most expensive one in the country's history. However, in July Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov's estimated that the bridge would cost less than half that amount.

The project has stalled amidst Russia's recent economic dip, however Vedomosti reports that with Rotenberg on board building may soon commence.

Rotenberg's Stroygazmontazh company was one of the major contractors in Russia's South Stream pipeline and, alongside Gennady Tymchenko, Rotenberg has been entrusted to oversee many other crucial infrastructure projects within Russia by Putin, such as the construction of facilities for the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Both businessmen's finances were hit after the Russian government raised interest rates by 7% overnight in an unsuccessful bid to halt the fall of the rouble last month.