After its annexation of Crimea, Moscow is hoping to accelerate a long dormant project to build a bridge connecting Russia across the Kerch Strait. But there is the Sochi lesson to consider.
MOSCOW — One way or another, Russia and Crimea will eventually be connected by a bridge. Of that there is no longer any doubt, though a number of details of the project, which will span the Kerch Strait, have yet to be ironed out.
A government official told journalists in late August that the general contractor would be the Stoytransgaz company. An announcement on the project’s website later confirmed that a general contractor would be chosen without open bidding.
Recently, however, a new rumor has surfaced: that Stroytransgaz could end up being the subcontractor and that the general contractor will be the Federal Agency for Special Construction. The new scenario, should it prove to be true, may actually work out better for Stroytransgaz. Major Russian construction companies have in large part been wary of the high-profile Kerch Strait, which they see as a potential liability.
"It's unlikely that the general contractor will make a profit on the construction of the Kerch Strait bridge. Quite the opposite," says Vitalli Kryukov, the director of an investment company called Small Letters. "The contractor won't be able to get more than the originally agreed upon price, and the chances that the construction costs will rise, considering the complexity of the project, are near 100%."
Plans as they currently stand call for the bridge to be built by 2018, with a total budget of around $5.3 billion.
A checkered past
The idea for a bridge between Crimea and Russia’s Krasnodar Krai is hardly new, having originally come from Albert Speer, Nazi Germany's minister of defense, who was convinced a bridge from occupied Crimea would facilitate a German invasion of Eurasia. He even had the necessary materials brought into Crimea. When the region was liberated by the Red army in 1944, the Soviets went ahead and built the bridge using the left-behind Nazi materials. Three months after opening, however, the bridge was washed away by an iceflow.
For decades afterwards, the Kerch Strait bridge was considered unbuildable. Eventually, though, planners revisited the idea and in 2011, Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement that aimed to construct a bridge in time for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Delays ensued and more recently, since the start of the armed conflict in southeast Ukraine, Ukrainian experts have been expressing their doubts about the competence of Russian builders. Earlier this year the Ukrainian government officially rescinded the bridge-agreement.
When it comes to bridge building, the Ukrainian experts are right to point out that Russia doesn't exactly have the best track record. There was the dancing bridge in Volgograd, which went into resonance with an oscillation and shook dramatically less than a year after opening. It had to be closed for renovations. The old Voroshilvoski Bridge was built in 1965 and got so warped over time that it too had to be closed and reconstructed. Then there was the Russky Bridge, which also ended up being misshapen — albeit stable — despite costing twice as much to build as originally anticipated.
A Ukrainian expert recently said that neither Russian nor Chinese companies would be capable of building the bridge. “No matter how much money Russia throws at the bridge, it won’t be built,” he said.
Satellite image of the Kerch strait and proposed alignments for the bridge — Source: Wikimedia Commons
Contractors in Russia disagree. “In reality, Russia has enough specialists in both project management and construction to see the project through,” says Vladimir Vlasov, the general director of a bridge-building company called Mostotrest.
Vlasov's confidence is echoed by another Russian builder, Valerii Schmit, who admits that "it is truly a very difficult and expensive project, especially because of the width of the supports," but that the bridge is "doable." The key, he says, "is a large consortium ... one company can’t do it alone."
At Stoytransgaz, top management recognizes that while the bridge could be built by 2018, as planned, but it would require mobilizing not only the company’s own reserves but also those of several partners.
All about the money
The bridge has critics in Crimea too, where several people suggest reestablishing a ferry connection and then building a tunnel across the Kerch Strait and a full port in Crimea.
"The reestablishment of ferry service is a great idea. It has been planned since the very beginning," says Aleksei Bezborodov, the director of the InfraNews analysis agency. "But everything else is doubtful. A tunnel is impossible from both a financial and geological point of view. The Crimean-Caucasian fault goes right through there, so you can’t excavate anything. And about that port: It’s not clear where Crimea is going to get enough cargo to make it worth it. The new Russian seaport is more than large enough for the current amount of cargo."
On the Kerch Strait — Photo: Ð�Ñ€Ñ‚Ñ‘Ð¼ via Instragram
Bezborodov considers a bridge to be essential and doesn’t see any technical reason that it couldn’t be built. The tricky part, he says, is money.
Finances indeed seem to be on the mind of major Russian construction firms which, given that the bridge is a matter of national pride, might be expected to jump at an opportunity to participate. And yet so far, perhaps because of lessons learned from the Sochi Olympics, few have stepped forward. Absolutely all of the builders who worked in Sochi discovered that the final cost of construction was several times greater than the original estimates.
"Of course, everyone knew that the costs would rise," says one of the government officials in charge of the Sochi contracts. "But they thought that if they could explain why they were over budget, they would be reimbursed."
Contractors involved in the Sochi Olympics have since filed suit against the State-owned company responsible for ordering the construction for hundreds of millions of dollars, demanding compensation.
"We understand that contractors are used to operating under this system," the source explains. "But if we had done that for the Olympics, we simply wouldn't have been able to get everything built."
This "new system" drove several major companies to bankruptcy, and many companies are concerned that the Kerch Strait bridge project could be similarly damaging to their bottom line.
Kruikov says that the Mostotrest firm is possibly the only Russian company that has the required experience and experts to successfully build the bridge. "But in Russia," he notes, "the longer the bridge, the more difficult it is for companies to make a profit."