Russian President Vladimir Putin has opened the country's newly built bridge to the annexed Crimean Peninsula, driving a truck across the span and drawing angry condemnation from Kyiv, the European Union, and the United States.
Putin was shown live on state television at the wheel of a Kamaz truck in a convoy of vehicles that crossed what Russia calls the Crimean Bridge -- a symbol of Moscow's control over the Ukrainian peninsula -- on May 15.
After an excited reporter welcomed "our heroes" as the convoy arrived on the Crimean side, Putin hopped out of the cab in jeans and a jacket and praised builders for the "miracle" he said they had created.
"Throughout various historical epochs...people have dreamed of building this bridge," Putin said, calling it a "historic day."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that "the illegal construction of the Kerch bridge is the latest evidence of the Kremlin's disregard for international law."
In a statement posted on Twitter, he said it was "particularly cynical" that the opening took place days before the anniversary of the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars from their homeland by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1944.
EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini's spokeswoman said construction of the bridge "constitutes another violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia."
"The construction of the bridge aims at the further forced integration of the illegally annexed peninsula with Russia and its isolation from Ukraine, of which it remains a part," spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department also condemned Russia's construction of the bridge, saying it was done "without the permission of the government of Ukraine."
"Russia's construction of the bridge serves as a reminder of Russia’s ongoing willingness to flout international law," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Nauert added that the bridge "represents not only an attempt by Russia to solidify its unlawful seizure and its occupation of Crimea, but also impedes navigation by limiting the size of ships that can transit the Kerch Strait, the only path to reach Ukraine's territorial waters in the Sea of Azov."
The 19-kilometer bridge over the Kerch Strait had been scheduled to open in December 2018, but Russian authorities recently announced it would open for cars and buses on May 16.
Construction on the bridge from Russia's Krasnodar Krai to Crimea's eastern end started in 2016, two years after Russia seized control of the peninsula following a military occupation and a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries.
The $3.7 billion project includes a four-lane highway and a two-lane railroad, which is still under construction.
PHOTO GALLERY: Putin Officially Opens Massive Bridge Linking Crimea To Russia (CLICK TO VIEW)
Putin expressed confidence that the bridge will be open for regular truck traffic in the fall and that the railroad section will open in 2019.
The bridge will give "the economy of Crimea...new momentum" and "raise people's living standards," Putin said. "We will go on working on similar projects throughout the entire country."
Putin has pledged to develop infrastructure and improve living standards substantially in his fourth presidential term, which began on May 7 and ends in 2024, but GDP growth has lagged behind targets and Crimea's economy is struggling.
The televised truck footage was par for the course for Putin, who state TV has shown at the controls of vehicles including a fighter jet, an ultralight aircraft, a minisubmarine, and a faster-moving racing truck in the past.
Crimea is connected to the mainland in Ukraine only, so the newly built bridge is the sole link between the peninsula and Russia.
In the EU statement, Kocijancic said that the bridge "limits the passage of vessels via the Kerch Strait to Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea."
The European Union continues to condemn the illegal annexation of Crimea...by Russia and will not recognize this violation of international law," she said.
Putin's government moved swiftly to seize Crimea in March 2014, after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power by months of street demonstrations and fled to Russia.
Russia sent troops without insignia to Crimea and orchestrated the takeover of government bodies, before holding the referendum on March 16, 2014.
Moscow's takeover of the Black Sea peninsula severely damaged its relations with Kyiv and the West, leading to the imposition of sanctions by the United States, the European Union, and other countries.
Ties were further torn when Russia fomented unrest in Ukraine and backed separatists in a war that has killed more than 10,300 people in the eastern region known as the Donbas.