Russian President Vladimir Putin has opened the country's newly built bridge to the annexed Crimean Peninsula, driving a truck across the controversial span.
Putin was shown live on state television at the wheel of a Kamaz truck in a convoy of vehicles that crossed the 19-kilometer-long 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.
The bridge over the Kerch Strait had been scheduled to open in December 2018, but Russian authorities have announced that the span -- which Moscow calls the Crimean Bridge -- will 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.
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.
Putin has said that the bridge will integrate Crimea into Russia's transport system and create opportunities for economic growth.
Crimea is connected to the mainland in Ukraine only, so the newly built bridge is the sole link between the peninsula and Russia.
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.