Why the Crimean conflict is back in the spotlight

In the battle over the Crimean Peninsula, electricity, fresh water, gas and telecommunications are key to control. Is Ukraine close to completely losing the territory to Russia?

By: , /
November 30, 2015
Ravshan, a Crimean Tatar, carries firewood while using a burning oil lamp due to a power cut in the village of Strogonovka, Simferopol district, Crimea, Nov. 26, 2015. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

Until recently the conflict in Ukraine had all but disappeared from mainstream media.  This is mostly because the situation in Eastern Ukraine has become more stable, though far from a peaceful resolution.  The Minsk Two Agreement that provided for the withdrawal of heavy artillery from the conflict zone and oversight by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is slowly being implemented by both sides. Although it is too early to talk about Ukrainian control over the entire length of the border with Russia, heavy warfare in the Eastern part of Ukraine is in decline.

In addition, Ukraine’s political elites have, for the better part of the last eight months, focused mostly on the country’s troubled economy. Ukraine’s economy remains weak, buttressed only from collapse by the $20 billion in loans Kyiv received from the IMF and the EU last winter. The Hryvna now trades around 50 percent of the value it had in 2014 and the inflation rate is running around 40 percent. The country has all but depleted all its gold reserves.

Then last week Crimea re-emerged in the political spotlight — a full year and a half after Russian annexation.

On Friday, a few electrical towers on Ukrainian soil carrying electricity throughout the region were toppled by several well-placed bombs. According to observers, the pylons were destroyed by tank mines. The next day, the entire peninsula and parts of Ukraine, were cut off from electricity. More than three quarters of Crimea’s 2.2 million people have since been without power. Generators supplying electricity to hospitals and government buildings continue to run, but schools and universities are closed and rolling blackouts are in effect.

These events come at a time when the former autonomous republic of Ukraine appeared to be almost fully integrated into the Russian Federation. The Crimean federal district was established over a year ago, the economy of the peninsula is now based on the Russian taxation system, the Hryvna has been replaced by the Ruble and all Crimean social institutions such as the health care system, education, and the judiciary are now “refurbished” in the Russian tricolour. The chances of Crimea returning to Ukraine are extremely low. Since the spring of 2014, Crimea has clearly become more “Russified.”

Yet, Crimea remains vulnerable to more attacks. The peninsula relies on Ukraine not only for electricity but fresh water, gas and telecommunications. On November 23, citing concerns about “terrorist threats,” Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov, announced that repairs would be done to just one of the two damaged transmitters. The one sending electricity to Crimea would not be repaired. It is not clear if this decision was intended to punish the people of Crimea or is part of a strategy to bring Crimea back under Ukrainian control. We now know that Ukraine is looking to reduce its ties with Russia in a number of ways. Kiev has closed its air space to Russian aircraft and has said it will no longer buy gas directly from Russia for its own use (while it will still allow Russian gas bound for Western Europe to move unimpeded). Considering that Kiev didn’t allow Russians to fly to Ukraine directly already and that it will be buying Russian gas from European brokers instead, these decisions are mostly symbolic.

Blackout battleground

What has changed is Ukraine’s apparent unwillingness to reinstate electricity to Crimea. While blackouts were uncommon in the last 20 years since independence, this time around the change may well be permanent.  There are a couple of reasons for that. The head of the Mejlis (the Crimean Tatar people’s representative body), Mustafa Dzhemilev, has been unequivocal, stating that the Tatars, who have imposed a blockade on Crimea, would only allow repairs in return for the release of political activists in Crimea. So far that has not happened. The Tatar are a Muslim minority in Crimea comprising about 13 percent of the population and living mostly in four northern sub-regions of Crimea. Citing harassment, discrimination and persecution under Russian rule they are working to escalate tensions on the peninsula while the world comes to terms with Russia’s claim to Crimea.  Now with an increasingly marginalized Muslim Tatar population, there is talk of a Dagestan-style low intensity conflict pitting Tatar radicals against the Russian government. In reality a number of events have unfolded over the last year making the current situation more unstable.  

In the summer of 2014, water delivery to Crimea through the North-Crimean Canal was cut off, significantly affecting crop production in Northern Crimea. In September of this year, Tatar activists working with Ukrainian political activists and members of Ukraine’s notorious “Pravy Sektor” (“Right Sector”) blockaded the flow of goods coming from the mainland to Crimea. Though the blockade grabbed the media’s attention it had little effect in mobilizing the Ukrainian government and people against Russian’s control of Crimea. Kiev, wary of Pravy Sektor’s increasing influence in the security and politics of the country, neither openly supported, nor criticized the blockade but President Petro Poroshenko ordered his ministers to temporarily stop cargo, motor and rail travel to Crimea. The official Russian response came from the country’s Minister of Energy who proposed cutting off coal and gas supplies to Ukraine.

According to some sources, the blockade has impacted some areas in Crimea and has triggered inflation on food stuffs but it hasn’t had a devastating impact on the flow of goods into the peninsula. The blockade is more likely to trigger smuggling and illicit cross border criminal activity exacerbating an already tense situation.

An escalating conflict?

What are the implications of these increasingly destabilizing events? First, the blockade and the power shortage signal a clear escalation in the conflict.  Russia is not standing idly by as Crimea succumbs to the same kind of uncontrollable violence that plagued Eastern Ukraine. In July 2015, Russia launched its power bridge project that will provide enough electricity to Crimea, by laying a 14-kilometre underwater cable from Krasnodar, Russia, to the peninsula. The first phase of the project is supposed to supply electricity to most of the peninsula by the end of this year but delays have slowed progress. While this action will cut dependence on Ukraine even more in the long run, the immediate concern for all Crimean is keeping warm in the winter months and providing essential services to hospitals.

Secondly without any firm statements denouncing the bombings as sabotage or the blockade as illegal, the Ukrainian government is demonstrating its weakness in the face of gangs and right wing political opportunists. Still reactive, but not pro-active, Kiev is showing it simply does not have a roadmap for reintegrating Crimea’s population into Ukraine. For the people of Crimea, Kiev’s implicit support of the blockade and indifference to the bombings is just another step in their alienation from Ukraine.

For their part, the Tatars are walking a thin line. Historically, the Mejlis has not been a politically active organization preferring accommodation with Crimea’s political leaders over confrontation. But under pressure to be more effective and outspoken in defending Tatar rights, that strategy has clearly changed. Should the Tatar population become more radicalized, Crimea is likely to see even more Russian control over the peninsula. Moscow will run Crimea much like they have done in the North Caucasus quashing dissent, political organisation and minority rights.

Naturally any effort at further integrating Crimea into Russia is viewed with suspicion by Kiev. Visits from French parliamentarians and discussions between German, Italian and Crimean parliamentarians earlier this year were welcomed by Crimeans who feel doubly punished by sanctions and Kiev’s recalcitrance. Meanwhile Crimeans have difficulties visiting Ukraine to see their relatives or apply for foreign visas. This adds difficulties to the already complicated life of the Crimean population and further strengthens anti-Ukrainian feelings even among those who might be open to Western engagement. Crimea it would seem is fast becoming a lost cause for Kiev.