WARSAW—The European Union has imposed asset freezes on six Russian firms for their involvement in the construction of a new road-and-rail bridge linking Russia to the annexed Crimean Peninsula, which the bloc says is illegal.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was toppled in an uprising. The West condemned the seizure as an illegal annexation and retaliated against Moscow with sanctions.
After the annexation, the Kremlin ordered the building of a $3.6 billion bridge to link the peninsula to Russia.
The bridge, part of which was unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in May, has drawn strong rebuke from the EU, which calls it a further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
A statement from the EU Council, which sets the bloc’s foreign and security policy, named six firms that will have their assets in the EU frozen. EU persons and entities will not be able to make funds available to them, it said.
The companies include three firms—PJSC Mostotrest, SGM and Stroygazmontazh Most OOO—controlled by billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, President Vladimir Putin’s former Judo sparring partner. Construction firm CJSC VAD, engineering firm GPSM and the Zaliv Shipyard were also named.
“Through their actions they supported the consolidation of Russia’s control over the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula, which in turn further undermines the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine,” the council said.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said he welcomed the additional sanctions.
“Important warning also for European businesses not to go down same slippery slope,” Klimkin wrote on Twitter.
Russia criticized the sanctions, saying they targeted people living on the peninsula. “This is a policy of undermining, directed against Crimea’s residents,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quoted as saying by TASS news agency.
Rotenberg brushed aside the sanctions in a social media post, saying work was underway to complete the railway section of the bridge.
“We’re all proud of our work and if someone doesn’t like it that’s not our problem,” a spokesman for Rotenberg quoted him as saying.
The construction of the 19-kilometer (11.8-mile) Kerch Strait Bridge began in 2016, with the railway section expected to open in early 2019.
Much media fanfare accompanied the May 15 inauguration of the road portion, with Putin himself getting behind the wheel of a Russian-made Kamaz truck to lead the symbolic first charge of vehicles across the bridge.
The EU Council’s decision brings the total number of entities earmarked for EU sanctions to 44. In addition, the EU imposed a travel ban and an asset freeze on 155 individuals under this sanctions regime.
Since their imposition in 2014, the sanctions have been periodically reviewed and extended, most recently in July following the update from French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel to the European Council on the status of the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.
The Minsk Protocol (later known as Minsk I), along with the Minsk Memorandum of September 2014 and the Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements (Minsk II) are agreements between Ukraine and Russia to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Minsk II offers a detailed 13-point plan for resolving the conflict, with a ceasefire monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as a key first step.
In a recent news alert, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine “reported 1,200 ceasefire violations last week, as fighting between the Ukrainian armed forces and separatists in the east continues.”
Hug: 1,200 ceasefire violations recorded last week, as root causes of violence still exist, namely presence of proscribed weapons; 42 weapons in violation of agreed withdrawal lines – 26 in non-gov-ctrl and 16 in gov-ctrl areas #FactsMatter pic.twitter.com/HBX690ZPZS
— OSCE SMM Ukraine (@OSCE_SMM) 12 lipca 2018
Each side accuses the other of violating the ceasefire. Political leaders publicly state there is no alternative to the Minsk Agreements but, according to The Economist, “in private, few see any chance for its full implementation.”
While the worst of the violence has abated after Minsk II, there is no guarantee preventing another outbreak of war.
Some experts suggest the conflict has some markings of a proxy war between the NATO-allied West and Russia, fought on Ukrainian territory.
“The position of the West is ‘We are not at war with Russia,’ even though we’re making battle plans, we’re deploying conventional military forces in places we haven’t done in 25-plus years, and we’re providing assistance to people who are directly at war,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank, according to Vice.
“And the fact that the West hasn’t embraced it publicly definitely raises questions about what its long-term future is. But if you are looking at this from Moscow’s perspective, NATO has arrived, the cavalry is here to help their ally to fight a war against us.”
An alternative to Minsk 2, called the Hudson plan, has been developed by the Hudson Institute, a Washington think-tank.
The plan, authored by Richard Gowan, formerly of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, calls for a UN-led peacekeeping force comprised in sufficient measure of non-NATO country forces—so as not seem threatening to Russia—and assume control of security and elections in eastern Ukraine.
Its backers argue the plan is the best hope for lasting peace as it would likely satisfy the Kremlin that pro-Russian rebels would be shielded from Kyiv’s reprisals, and cultural and economic ties to Russia would be maintained.
The Council on Foreign Relations estimates 10,303 people have been killed in the conflict, and 1.6 million have been internally displaced.
Reuters contributed to this report.