Monday, September 12, 2016

Putin's Ukraine Plan Means Ousting Merkel And Hollande

WASHINGTON, DC -- The recent G-20 meetings in Hangzhou, China, provide a useful balance sheet for assessing Russia’s status in Europe.

Vladimir Putin offers to shake hands with Angela Merkel in the Kremlin on May 10, 2015. Stephen Blank writes that Putin will play every card in his book to undermine Merkel and French President François Hollande. It also would not be surprising, he writes, if Putin continues to bomb Syria to provoke still more refugee flights to Europe, using migration as a tool in his campaign. While Putin’s immediate target is Ukraine, ultimately he wants to reorganize Europe much as Hitler did at Munich.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin showed that Russia is not as isolated as many in the West think it should be, Putin failed to convince France and Germany to pressure Ukraine to implement the Minsk II cease-fire accord.

Russia cannot be isolated if there is to be a nonviolent resolution of the war in Ukraine.

It is clear that neither Europe nor the United States knows how to achieve its strategic goal of removing Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria without dealing directly with Putin, who is generally acknowledged to be driving the Syrian agenda.

It is also clear, however, that sanctions will remain as long as Moscow does not implement its obligations under Minsk II, and that neither France nor Germany will help Putin decide Ukraine’s destiny without Ukraine’s presence at those discussions.

Thus, there was no repeat performance of the Munich conference at Hangzhou, nor will there be anytime soon.

Politicians and analysts often overuse or misapply the Munich analogy in world politics.

But the core analogy of four great powers determining the destiny and territory of an absent fifth state retains its salience here:

While Putin’s immediate target is Ukraine, ultimately he wants to reorganize Europe much as Hitler did at Munich.

Indeed, from Putin’s standpoint, the greatest gift he could get would be to make Germany and France complicit with Russia in the crime of destroying Ukraine’s de facto independence and territorial integrity. 

Apparently, the massive deployments around Ukraine will outlast the impending Kavkaz-2016 exercises and remain there as a constant source of pressure toward that end.

But while the West will not respond militarily to Russian actions in Ukraine, it evidently also will not throw Ukraine under the bus, as Putin wants.

In the coming months, we can expect not just a ratcheting up of combined military and nonmilitary pressure in Ukraine, including a continuing refusal to implement the Minsk I and II accords, but also an increased information war, economic blandishments (such as energy deals like Nord Stream and Arctic exploration, trade opportunities and investment opportunities) and efforts to subvert the French and German governments.

Both France and Germany will hold elections next year, and the challengers to the incumbents, Nicolas Sarkozy and the German Socialist Party, have telegraphed their intentions to make deals with Putin at Ukraine’s expense.

Given those facts, it stands to reason that Putin will play every card in his book to undermine French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It also would not be surprising if Putin continues to bomb Syria to provoke still more refugee flights to Europe, using migration as a tool in his campaign.

Since the West can no longer isolate Russia, Western leaders would undoubtedly prefer to find a modus vivendi with Russia based upon the Minsk process.

But as President Barack Obama said in Hangzhou, Russia cannot be trusted.

U.S. officials fear that any accord with Moscow on Syria will be broken as soon as Moscow finds it desirable to do so.

After all, Russia has broken every treaty about the Commonwealth of Independent States it has signed: the Budapest accord, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, the Vienna Note and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Since it is an article of faith in Russia that Ukraine cannot be an independent entity distinct from Russia, the Russian establishment and many liberals believe that giving back Crimea or acknowledging responsibility for the war in Ukraine entails the fall of the government.

And they may not be wrong.

But they can retain Ukrainian territory only by force or by persuading Europe to accept Russian terms and sell out Ukraine.

Since protracted war with Ukraine or NATO is an unappealing objective, we can expect a drawn-out European campaign.

Russia will use all other instruments of power, along with the constant threat of renewed fighting, to subvert the political order in Ukraine, Germany and France, if not elsewhere in Europe.

While Western leaders still seek dialogue with Russia, it is important to remember that Putin has long since declared war, or at least a state of siege, with Europe and cannot accept anything less than full legitimization of his conquests.

At Hangzhou, he had the satisfaction of no longer being isolated.

But that remains an incomplete victory as long as he cannot induce his interlocutors to lift sanctions and turn a blind eye to Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine.

While in the future there may not be war with Europe or with Ukraine, despite ongoing cease-fire violations, there will be no peace either.

Source: Newsweek

5 Lethal Russian Weapons Of War Ukraine Should Fear

WASHINGTON, DC -- The smoldering conflict in Ukraine’s eastern provinces has now gone on for more than two years.

Although an uneasy status quo has settled on the region, skirmishes continue, and tension periodically run high.

With the prospect of open, large scale conventional combat receding, the focus has shifted to the tactics and weapons that either side can use to press the other at the margin, to recapture a sliver of territory, or increase the temperature on the enemy.

Here are five kinds of weapons that Russia uses to maintain pressure on eastern Ukraine, and Kiev as a whole.


Unless it decides to expand its incursion into Ukraine, Russia’s ability to hurt the Ukrainian government depends on its willingness to leverage airpower, economic power and cyber-power.

Of the first of these, Russia has been reticent to carry out direct attacks against Ukraine with either aircraft or ballistic missiles.

Given the weakness of the Russian economy, Moscow can offer less and less in terms of coercive economic statecraft.

But in the cyber-arena, Russia remains dangerous.

As Thomas Rid and others have argued, the prospects for “cyber-war” are a combination of murky and over-hyped.

Nevertheless, Russia has established that it has the capacity to engage in annoying, often disruptive attacks against unfriendly cyber-networks.

These attacks cannot destroy the social fabric on their own, but they can certainly prove costly to the targets.

Moreover, cyber-attacks continue to carry a degree of deniability that saves Russia from paying the diplomatic costs of aggression.

Air Defense: 

In the early days of the Ukrainian Civil War, Kiev tried to leverage its airpower advantage over the rebels by conducting airstrikes and other missions over the disputed eastern provinces.

Central governments traditionally have airpower advantages over rebel groups, as the former remain in control of air assets and of the logistical framework necessary to keeping planes in the air.

All of this made Russia’s contribution of surface-to-air missile systems extremely important to maintaining rebel control over the provinces in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has reportedly contributed a variety of systems which, in total, have shot down almost twenty Ukrainian aircraft and helicopters.

One of these systems also shot down a Malaysian jetliner in the most notable incident of the war.

As long as Russia maintains what amounts to an air defense network over the wayward Ukrainian provinces (whether from Russia or from Ukraine itself), Kiev will struggle to defeat the rebels.

Little Green Men: 

When Russia seized Crimea, special operators paved the way.

Soldiers in unmarked green uniforms formed the spearhead of the invasion force, quickly seizing key installations and cutting the peninsula off from the rest of Ukraine.

These highly trained special forces have become one of Russia’s most effective weapons for keeping its near abroad in line.

Russia has developed its special forces with great care, using them in Chechnya, Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, and elsewhere to create “facts on the ground,” military realities that become difficult for political and diplomatic forces to dislodge.

In Crimea, Russian special operators managed to seize the peninsula before confused and distracted Ukrainian forces could react.

In the eastern provinces, special operators have helped support and train rebel forces.

Defusing and defeating these operators remains an exceedingly difficult task for Kiev.


Over the past few decades the United States has de-emphasized the role of artillery in land combat, instead concentrating on mobile, precision-fires acting in support of mobile forces.

Some believe that heavy artillery has become a relic of another age, while others worry that insufficient emphasis on what was once the “god of war” will leave the US vulnerable to conventional foes.

Russia, on the other hand, has continued to put a strong emphasis on the role of artillery fires.

The effectiveness of Russian artillery can perhaps be overstated (a recent Washington Post op-ed painted a dire picture) but in Ukraine long-range artillery has played a critical role in allowing Russia to hit Ukrainian forces from the safety of its own borders.

Without effective counterfire options, Ukrainian troops are at the mercy of artillery that they cannot hit back against.


Russia was slower than the United States to make drone technology a central focus of warfighting, although it has taken aggressive steps to catch up.

In Ukraine, unmanned aerial vehicles have become the most important means through which Russia keeps track of developments on the battlefield.

Russian drones rarely, if ever, conduct the kind of targeted strike that has become common from their US counterparts.

They also normally do not partake in the prolonged surveillance missions that the United States has invested so much attention in.

Rather, Russia uses its drones in close collaboration with fielded forces, to identify and target critical enemy assets, including command centers, logistical centers and concentrations of troops and vehicles.

With the information supplied by drones, Russian artillery becomes ever more lethal, especially to thinly protected troops and vehicles.

Final Shots: 

Because of Western reticence about transferring lethal arms to Kiev, as well as Ukraine’s dire economic situation, there is no obvious path to overcoming Russia’s military advantages along the border.

As long as Russia persists in committing men and weapons to Donetsk and Luhansk, Kiev will struggle to restore order, and recapture its territory.

Over time, the once-robust Ukrainian defense industry may restore some of the Ukrainian military’s key capabilities.

For now, Moscow continues to hold the most important cards.

Source: The National Interest

Friday, September 02, 2016

2 Years Ago, I Thought The War In Ukraine Was Over, I Was Wrong

KIEV, Ukraine -- Two years ago, on Sept. 5, 2014, Ukraine war’s first cease-fire went into effect. For a brief moment, the guns fell silent along the front lines in Ukraine’s embattled southeastern Donbass region.

These areas included the outskirts of the southern port city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian and combined Russian-separatist forces were engaged in a tank and heavy artillery battle. 

But the cease-fire collapsed the day after its signing, and a second cease-fire, called Minsk II, went into effect in February 2015.

It also quickly failed.

Today, the war remains locked in a static trench warfare stalemate.

About 10,000 Ukrainians have died because of the conflict, and more than 1 million have been displaced.

Heavy weapons banned by the Minsk II cease-fire still are used every day, and soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict still are dying.

As The Daily Signal’s foreign correspondent, I was in Mariupol in the days leading up to the first cease-fire in September 2014.

Following are some of my journal entries from that time.

Sept. 2, 2014 

Despite the fact that the separatists are only 20 to 30 kilometers outside the city, life here seems unaffected.

People were at the beach today, enjoying the late summer sun.

Children were in school, and rail and aviation routes are still open.

The hotel I’m at, the Poseidon, offers the clearest sign of what may be about to happen.

The place is swarming with journalists from around the world—the BBC, CNN, The New York Times.

Grizzled veterans of covering wars from Iraq and Afghanistan, to Sudan, Congo, and Georgia are swapping stories and sharing info about the situation here.

This is all amid the backdrop of Ukrainian troops digging in on the outskirts of town for what looks to be a tough fight against the pro-Russian separatist army, which may include as many as 5,000 regular Russian troops, according to NATO.

So tonight I’m sitting at a beachside café on the Sea of Azov, listening to awful American cover songs on the radio, planning my escape if things spiral out of control.

It’s a quiet, clear night.

A steady sea breeze rocks the trees along the coast, and the lights of different towns along the shore twinkle in the clear air, just like the stars in the dark sky above.

It all reminds me of my childhood in Florida, and my memories of when a hurricane was on the horizon.

Often the days leading up to a hurricane are beautiful and clear, with a slight, steady breeze—just like tonight in Mariupol.

The weather portends nothing of the tempest just over the horizon.

But the calm and the peace seem so finite and precious with the knowledge of what is to come.

As I sip my second beer of the evening (what else is there to do under the circumstances?), I scan the news online for updates.

The ongoing Russian-backed invasion of southeastern Ukraine is just miles from here, although you’d hardly know it.

NATO had released a statement earlier, announcing that as many as 5,000 regular Russian soldiers had crossed the border.

The Ukrainian military said Ukrainian positions were under fire from artillery shot from within Russian territory.

Another story said Ukrainian fighter jets were bombing separatist positions.

The town of Novoazovsk, only 30 kilometers, about 20 miles, east of Mariupol, is firmly under separatist control, and most news outlets and their analysts anticipate a full-on attack on Mariupol could happen any day.

It’s bizarre to scroll through my Facebook feed to see life going on back home, unaffected by all of this.

I know, of course, that this isn’t America’s war.

And few people back home have personal connections to this place or the people in it.

But when I see the pretty young woman working the desk of the hotel, or the faces of the young soldiers getting off the train today and being trucked to the trenches on the outskirts of the city, I can’t help but think people back home should care more about all of this.

I wrote my parents and my brother, telling them where I was and that I was safe.

I reassured them that I had thought this through and had a way out of here if things got bad.

White lies, perhaps, but lies all the same.

Still, in some recess of my mind I wondered if my reassurances to them were just a way to cocoon myself from what I would really be facing if things did indeed spiral out of control.

It was easier to email my family to tell them I had some James Bond escape plan than to face the truth.

I truly had no idea what I would do if Russian tanks started rolling down the road out my window or if some Chechen mercenary jacked up on vodka, borscht, and anti-American propaganda kicked my door open and asked for my papers.

The scale and intensity of the fighting had gotten much worse in the past few days, but there was also a sharp change in the rhetoric as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was now calling for the restoration of Novorossiya, the 18th century Russian empire established under Catherine the Great that stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic, comprising a lot of territory that now belonged to sovereign states without the word “Russia” currently in their names.

At a minimum, I think, our leaders should understand what may be about to happen here.

And they should be willing to do something about it.

Or maybe I’ve just gotten too caught up in all this, caring too much about a conflict that has little to do with my life back home.

But the most lasting, important impression of today is that there are a lot of good people here who want nothing more than to just go about their lives in peace.

They don’t have the option, like I do, to just pack up and leave.

This is their home and where they will likely stay no matter the outcome of the next few days.

And they go to sleep tonight not knowing what tomorrow will bring.

Sept. 4, 2014 

I’m on the terrace of the Georgian restaurant, where I had dinner the night before with my friends Leonid and Nataly.

I’m alone tonight, writing with one hand wrapped around my beer, which I sip often.

I’m going through the beer quickly and have quite a few as the night goes on.

Out in the distance, toward the black void in the direction of Donetsk, there is a storm.

It had arrived.

I can hear the thunder and see the flashes of light.

Yet, unlike the squalls of my youth in Florida, these phenomena are not an accident of nature, but the clash of soldiers and their weapons.

The mood here tonight sharply contrasts with the night before.

There are no families celebrating, no lovers on dates, no children running around their parents’ table misbehaving.

The restaurant and terrace are mostly empty, save for some old men sitting outside with me, watching the occasional flashes of light in the cloudless night sky.

They are transfixed by what they see, sipping their vodka or beer as the rumble of the far-off artillery and rockets wash over us like a wave calmly spilling itself on a beach.

The servers look worried.

In between coming over to check on me, they sit together at a table inside, talking with serious looks on their faces.

This can’t be real.

How could it be?

I’m watching, out there in the distance, the proof of a battle.

Yet here I am, casually sipping a beer, feeling the light night breeze lap at my neck.

A spectator to men and lives being destroyed while distance safely cocoons me.



Understanding what those bursts of light and rumbles mean, but not feeling it.

I feel like the world is closing in on my thoughts, blocking out everything except for the faraway storm.

Down and to the right of my field of view, the lights of Mariupol’s streets twinkle in the night.

I think of all the people in those homes.

What are they thinking?

What do parents tell their children in such a moment?

How desperate must they feel?

From here the war is just lightning and thunder.

The people in its inevitable path are nothing more to me than twinkling city lights.

I’m on this perch, above it all, watching from afar as if I’m on Mount Olympus, a silent observer untouched by what’s going on below.

I think about those back home who have no idea what’s happening here.

Hell, most of the world probably doesn’t.

But here, tonight, this is all the world for me.

I’m above it, yes.

But like a plane that must eventually return to land, I know that my disconnected elevation is temporary.

I call my fixer, Vasiliy, and tell him I’m ready to be picked up.

Minutes later he arrives.

He has the radio turned off when I get in the car.

“Back to the hotel,” I say. “OK.”

We take off down the dark, sparsely lit streets.

There is hardly another car on the road.

No one is out walking tonight, and I only spot stray dogs as we zip along, descending back to town. 

With the radio off and in the darkness, I am attuned to the hum of the wheels, the minute creaks of the suspension, and the sound of Vasiliy pressing the pedals.

Noticing details that might be lost in the day and light.

My mind made alert to subtle, audible clues by the night and my knowledge of what is lurking in it. 

“It seems tomorrow could be bad,” Vasiliy says, breaking the silence.

“Yes, it looks that way.”

He pulls out a pack of cigarettes.

“You want one?”

“No, thanks.”

“Do you mind?”

“Not at all. Go for it.”

He rolls down his window a few inches, and I feel the cool night air stream inside.

He lights a cigarette.

Between drags he holds it in the fingers of his right hand, which work the gearshift while his left is wrapped around the wheel.

Every so often he flicks his ashes out the cracked window.

“Do you have a way out?” he asks.

“No. Not really. I suppose I’ll find a way west along the coast if things fall apart.”

“Call me if you need. I’ll drive you.”

“OK. I will.”

“If the Russians come, they may ask questions about your passport.”

“I plan on leaving before it comes to that.”

“Yes, but when it happens, it will happen quickly. You should be ready to go.”

“I understand.”

“Good. I’ll have my phone with me all day. Call me any time.”

“Thanks. I’ll remember.”

Back at the hotel I undress and get in bed.

I feel comfortable and clean in the light coolness of the sheets.

My head is spinning from the beer and with questions and imagined scenarios.

I wonder if I will look out the window of my room in the morning and see tanks rolling down the street along the beach.

If the separatists do break through the Ukrainian lines, would they come this far?

Would they clear out the hotel?

What would happen to my friends, Leonid and Nataly, and their daughter Veronica?

Had they found a way out?

How would the separatists treat foreign journalists?

Would it be safer to hole up in this hotel or try to flee west down the coast?

If the city fell, how would I get back to Kiev?

I think about James Foley for a moment.

No way it could get that bad, I convince myself.

But a chill goes down my spine.

As I wait for sleep to take me, I truly have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

Sept. 5, 2014 

The sounds of war began yesterday afternoon as a whisper.

After days of waiting for the separatist attack to begin on Mariupol, it was easy to believe the staccato baritone thuds were imagined.

But one by one people began to exchange awkward glances with one another, as if silently asking for confirmation of what they were hearing.

Stray dogs and cats grew agitated.

And after a few moments there was no mistaking the sound.

It was real; the waiting was over.

It was the sound of battle.

Today the concussions of artillery and rocket fire rattled windows in Mariupol.

It seemed for a while that all was lost, and the pro-Russian separatists were poised to break through the Ukrainian lines and overrun the city.

People were packing as much as they could into their cars and fleeing.

Restaurants were shut down.

The streets grew empty.

And then, as if ripped straight from the pages of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the sounds of war went silent.

A cease-fire had been signed.

Passing drivers honked their horns.

People cheered in celebration and strangers hugged each other.

Restaurants and hotel lobbies swelled with wedding ceremonies that had been put off by the war.

It was like New Year’s times a million. 

In Minsk, Belarus—more than 700 miles north of Mariupol—Ukrainian and Russian politicians reached a deal to stop the fighting.

And then, in an instant, armies of young men stopped shooting at each other. 

The absurdity of war.

Tonight I’m back in that same seaside bar from a few nights ago.

It’s another beautiful night with an easy breeze.

The same awful techno covers of American songs are on the radio.

It’s as if the last few days are imagined.

But I can’t stop thinking about what tonight could have been like.

It all started yesterday at 4 p.m. when pro-Russian separatists, supported by regular Russian soldiers and wielding heavy artillery, Grad rockets, and tanks, launched their attack on Ukrainian troops entrenched on the outskirts of Mariupol.

The separatists attacked from their stronghold in Novoazovsk.

Ukrainian units responded by deploying heavy artillery to the area and launching airstrikes.

Despite stiff resistance from the Ukrainian side, by lunchtime today it looked like the city was going to fall.

The streets grew quiet as people retreated indoors.

The sounds of explosions and gunfire grew louder, and plumes of smoke from the fighting were visible from the seaside.

The question on most everyone’s mind was, “Should I stay or flee?”

Some with children decided it wasn’t worth it to stay.

I called my friend Nataly, who has a 3-year-old daughter, to ask if she was OK.

She told me she was going to her husband’s grandparents’ house west of the city on the coast.

“It’s not so good right now,” she told me.

“The sounds of explosions are getting louder, and it’s scaring me.”

She was worried about her husband, Leonid, who had to stay in Mariupol to close down his business. 

The young couple wanted to avoid becoming refugees, so Leonid was doing what he could to shift his business from Mariupol to Kiev.

But he thought he would have more time before the fighting started, and so he made the impossible decision to send his wife and daughter away without him.

He chose to stay in Mariupol alone, knowing what was probably about to happen here, rather than flee without a way to provide for his family.

The harsh realities of war.

Tonight Mariupol breathes a skeptical sigh of relief, but I think back to the feeling of a hurricane on the horizon a few nights ago.

I wonder: “Has the stormed passed, or is this only the eye? Is the worst still to come?”

I have been in war zones before.

As an Air Force pilot, I deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and I have covered the Afghanistan war as a journalist.

I am familiar with the sound of things blowing up and the image of soldiers moving toward the fight. 

But up until now the human experience of war for me has been one of soldiers who have trained for combat and go into it willingly.

Yesterday and today I experienced war in a completely new and alien way.

I saw the worry on the faces of a young couple as they decided to part ways amid the threat of invasion.

I’ll never forget that.

It adds another layer to the absurd tragedy of war that I had never felt before.

To watch the streets empty, to see the look of apprehension on the faces of people you pass.

To look into the eyes of a stranger at a beachside restaurant and shake our heads in mutual disbelief as the sounds of an artillery barrage tear through the late summer breeze.

“Is this really happening?” our eyes say to each other.

And the style of combat in this war is something with which I am totally unfamiliar.

Tank battles, heavy artillery, long distance rocket attacks—this kind of combat is terrifying.

But the terror is short-lived, and the cease-fire appears to be holding.

Life goes on.

Yet, out there beyond the city streets, far away from the cheesy music in the bars and the embraces of newlyweds, the scars of the last two days of battle are still smoldering.

After the fighting ended today, I went out to the battlefields to see what war really is.

The bodies of soldiers dotted the fields like the plaster molds of bodies at Pompeii, frozen in the moment and the motion of their deaths.

These were men who did not die well.

Not by the mercy of a gunshot to the head or the heart.

Some had their bodies ripped apart by the concussion of artillery blasts.

Some were missing limbs.

Some with their insides spilled in the earth around them.

Others burned to death, trapped inside the steel coffins their tanks became.

Quite a few died in the way they desperately clung to life—halfway out of their ruined vehicles or on the ground in fetal positions.

All of their lives ended today.

The convenient forgetting about why they died begins tonight.

And still, as Mariupol celebrates, as I write these words, many more scared and tired young men wait in trenches and in tanks poised to once again release the dogs of war.

Source: The Daily Signal

U.S. Imposes Sanctions On 'Putin's Bridge' To Crimea

WASHINGTON, DC -- Companies building a multi-billion dollar bridge to link the Russian mainland with annexed Crimea, a project close to the heart President Vladimir Putin, were targeted by the United States in an updated sanctions blacklist on Thursday.

A view through a construction fence shows the Kremlin towers and St. Basil's Cathedral on a hot summer day in central Moscow, Russia, July 1, 2016.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury added dozens of people and companies to the list, first introduced after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and expanded over its support for separatist rebels in the east of the country.

As well as multiple subsidiaries of Russian gas giant Gazprom (GAZP.MM) and 11 Crimean officials, the Treasury named seven companies directly involved in the construction of the 19 km (11.8 miles) road-and-rail connection across the Kerch Strait, dubbed "Putin's bridge" by some Russians.

Chief among those were SGM-Most, a subsidiary of lead contractor Stroygazmontazh which is already under U.S. sanctions, and sub-contractor Mostotrest (MSTT.MM), one of Russia's biggest bridge builders.

"Treasury stands with our partners in condemning Russia's violation of international law, and we will continue to sanction those who threaten Ukraine's peace, security and sovereignty," said John Smith, acting director of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which levies sanctions.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was not immediately available for comment, but Moscow has previously said sanctions levied over its actions in Ukraine undermine efforts to resolve the conflict. 

Set to be the longest dual-purpose span in Europe when completed, the Kremlin sees its 212-billion rouble ($3.2 billion) bridge as vital to integrating Crimea into Russia, both symbolically and as an economic lifeline for the region.

Putin has called the undertaking an historic mission.

But the project has had to contend with Western sanctions since the construction contract was handed to Stroygazmontazh last year, a firm controlled by Arkady Rotenberg, a close ally of Putin's and his former judo partner.

Rotenberg is already under U.S. sanctions because of his links to the Russian leader, which the Treasury says have helped him win billions of dollars in state contracts.

He cannot raise capital in the West or hire Western sub-contractors to help his firm complete the project.

Officials linked to the bridge's construction say they have all the skills, equipment and supplies required to build it without Western help.

"The sanctions will not affect the construction of the bridge," Crimea Bridge infocentre, the organization responsible for communications about the project, said in a statement on Thursday.

"The contractor has all the resources necessary for the timely completion of the project."

Rotenberg and his brother Boris have denied getting help from the Russian leader for their businesses.

Gazprom did not reply to a request for comment.

The restrictions on the energy giant and its subsidiaries prevent U.S. firms or citizens from providing goods or services supporting the firm's deepwater, arctic offshore, or shale oil projects.

The restriction does not apply to financial services, such as clearing transactions or providing insurance for such projects.

Source: Google News