Putin made a show of crossing the new Crimea bridge but was upstaged by a cat
By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: May 16, 2018
President Vladimir Putin's handlers had thought of nearly everything for the christening of a $4 billion bridge linking Russia to Crimea.
Dressed in blue jeans and ditching his tie, Putin jumped into the driver's seat of an orange dump truck Tuesday and drove across the bridge with cameras recording every move.
One camera in the cab of the truck captured his small talk with a construction worker who was along for the ride and broadcast it across state media.
The imagery was deliberate: Putin was sealing his disputed 2014 annexation of Crimea with a project strongly condemned as illegal by the West.
He inaugurated the bridge, 12 miles of concrete and steel over the Black Sea's Kerch Strait, by leading the first-ever convoy from Russia into Crimea - an industrial and cultural show of force.
But there was one hitch: Putin was actually beaten across the bridge.
Not by saboteurs or protesters or a stage-stealing, fate-sealing politician — but by the orange-and-white cat that roamed the bridge the day before.
Mostik, the adopted mascot of construction workers in the project, boasted to his nearly 35,000 Instagram followers Monday that he had already traversed the bridge, a full day before Putin's first crossing.
"First to run the 19 kilometers [12 miles]. Everything is ready! Tomorrow I will ceremonially open the bridge with the builders and the president!" the cat's caption read. "And starting May 16 you can come yourselves, who's coming? ;)"
It's not clear whether Mostik's handlers coordinated with officials at Putin's carefully managed public event.
At the bridge, Putin signed autographs, shook hands with workers and offered remarks, as, in another odd moment, a saxophone-heavy rendition of the "Rocky" theme song blared from the speakers. The plot of "Rocky IV" involves an embarrassing defeat of the Soviet Union's premier boxer, Ivan Drago, in the midst of the Cold War.
The bridge, an ambitious project criticized by the State Department and described as "another violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia" by the European Union, is the newest lucrative operation for Putin's closest allies.
Arkady Rotenberg, a Russian business mogul and Putin's former judo partner, led the project. And the orange dump truck driven by the president was a Kamaz truck - manufactured by a state-owned company headed by Sergey Chemezov, Putin's KGB colleague in East Germany in the 1980s.
Both Rotenberg and Chemezov are under U.S. sanctions.
The bridge is a permanent fixture looming over tensions with Ukraine. Putin annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea, in 2014 after claiming that ethnic Russians in the region were threatened by Ukraine's pro-Western revolution.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that the bridge was the manifestation of Russia's "unlawful seizure and its occupation of Crimea" and will adversely affect commerce.
The West and much of the world considers the annexation illegitimate, though many Russians view it as Putin's crowning achievement. In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine, and regaining the region has been a nationalist rallying cry for decades.
The bridge project began a year after the annexation and was built without consent from Kiev. Mostik, the cat, has played a key role in spinning the bridge as a feel-good Russian enterprise.
State-owned Sputnik News described Mostik as an honorary foreman adopted as a stray in 2015 and said he has since become friendly with some of the thousands of construction workers there.
His social media presence spans across Facebook, Instagram and the Russian social media network VKontakte, where photos of the cat, wearing a tiny hard hat, litter the channels.
Mostik's public relations campaign, however, has not spun many in Ukraine.
"I am confident that the aggressor will not succeed and will bear responsibility in full," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Facebook, referring to Russia. "The invaders will need the bridge when they have to urgently leave our Crimea."
The bridge is symbolic in other ways, too.
As The Post's Anton Troianovski wrote, it also underscores the enrichment of Putin allies at the cost of decaying bridges, roads and railroads throughout Russia that have not been recipients of his personal patronage.
The World Bank ranks the quality of Russia's trade and transport infrastructure at 94th in the world, just behind Tunisia and ahead of Colombia.
The bridge can support up to 40,000 passenger cars a day, becoming the quickest way to reach Crimea, a popular vacation and tourist destination for Russians.
Previously, the only way to reach the peninsula was by plane or ferry. The railroad section of the bridge is expected to be finished by the end of 2019.
The Washington Post's Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.