Vladimir Putin Beaten by a Cat as First to Cross $4 Billion Crimea Bridge

Russian President Vladimir Putin looked set to be the first to cross the controversial multibillion bridge linking Russia to Crimea—but a cat seems to have beaten him to it.

Putin drove across the newly built bridge to Crimea—a territory Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014—to officially open its road lanes for car traffic. His truck led about a dozen others from Russia’s Krasnodar region to Crimea, as TV cameras showed Putin to be the first to make the 12-mile trip, as he inspected the construction that will continue until next year.

But a local feline gave his seal of approval a full day before the Russian leader, after apparently making the journey by foot.

“First to run the 19 kilometers [12 miles]. Everything is ready!” Mostik the cat, a mascot for the bridge builders, posted on Instagram on Monday. “Tomorrow I am ceremonially opening the bridge with the builders and the president. And starting May 16th you can come yourselves.”

Related: International scandal erupts over ancient Crimean gold, wanted by Russia and claimed by Ukraine

Mostik, named after the Russian diminutive word for bridge, has served as a mascot for builders on the Russian side of the bridge in Krasnodar since 2015, when the project’s press desk began posting photos on his behalf. Images of Mostik napping on construction equipment, playing on the beach and exploring the site have received thousands of shares in Russia. Builders have even given Mostik a small hard hat for his appearances on Russia’s main TV channels.

05_15_Putin_cat Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a cat while inspecting the reconstruction of houses for people who suffered from wildfires in the village of Krasnopol, in the Siberian Khakassia region, in Russia, on September 4, 2015. A cat is now claiming to have crossed Russia’s bridge to Crimea before Putin. Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

The cat has become the cuddly symbol of an otherwise deeply controversial project embodying Russia's annexation of Crimea. Putin painted the opening as a “historic” triumph, decades in the making, saying bridging the Kerch Strait was the subject of many plans made in Soviet times, and the desire for the bridge went back at least a century, to imperial times.

Putin made no mention of Crimea’s recent history and the events of 2014, when Russian forces stormed public buildings on the peninsula during a time of civil unrest in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. While protesters in Kiev ousted a Ukrainian government that had U-turned on a lucrative trade deal because of pressure from Moscow, Russian forces took Crimea under their own jurisdiction.

The Kremlin has dismissed opposition from a majority of states at the United Nations that argue that Crimea is legally part of Ukraine, pointing to a snap referendum that Russian forces held less than two months after taking control of the territory.

The Russian government commissioned the bridge between Krasnodar region and Crimea shortly after and Arkady Rotenberg, a close friend of Putin’s, received the contract to build it. Initial estimates for the rail-and-road bridge name the price at over a billion dollars, but independent estimates since claim the cost is closer to $4 billion to $5 billion.

Besides protesting the annexation and projects that cement Russian control over Crimea, Ukraine is also preparing a lawsuit over a secondary effect of the bridge. Its sealing of the Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea, means ships sailing from three other Ukrainian regions need Russia’s permission to cross into international European waters.

The annexation of Crimea, a territory many Soviet soldiers died protecting in World War II, has become a major source of pride for Russians. It ranks ahead of the Soviet Union’s triumph in sending the first man into space as well as Russia’s contributions to world literature in the eyes of many Russians, according to independent pollster Levada Center.

Putin’s popularity surged after the annexation and remained high despite drops in real income, a plummeting currency, stagnating economy and worsening social services.