Is Ukraine's power deficit leaving Crimea open to the Russian bear's embrace?
by David Carment and Milana Nikolko
December 9, 2015
Over the last six months or so Crimea hasn’t been in the news that much. Then a few electrical pylons on Ukrainian soil carrying electricity throughout the peninsula were toppled by several well-placed bombs. The next day the entire peninsula and part of Ukraine, were cut off from electricity. More than three quarters of Crimea’s 2.2 million people have been without power since then. Generators supplying electricity to hospitals and government buildings continue to run, but schools and universities are closed and rolling blackouts are in effect.
According to observers, the pylons were blown up by tank mines. Crimea remains vulnerable to more attacks. The peninsula relies on Ukraine not only for electricity but fresh water, gas and telecommunications. On November 23rd, citing concerns about “terrorist threats,” Ukraine’s internal affairs minister 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 is intended to punish the people of Crimea or is part of strategy to bring Crimea back under Ukrainian control.
The head of the Tatar’s religious council or Mejlis, Mustafa Dzhemilev has been unequivocal, stating that the Tatars, who have imposed a blockade on Crimea, would allow repairs but in turn demanded the release of political activists in Crimea. The Tatar are a Muslim minority in Crimea comprising about 13% 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.
The chances of Crimea returning to Ukraine are extremely low. Since the spring of 2014, Crimea has clearly become more “Russified”. 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 “Pravyi 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 the Pravy Sektor’s increasing influence in the security and politics of the country, neither openly supported, nor criticized the blockade.
According to some sources, the blockade has impacted some areas in Crimea and has triggered inflation on foodstuffs 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.
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 km underwater cable from Krasnodar Russia to the peninsula. The first phase of the project will supply electricity by the end of 2015. This action will cut dependence on Ukraine even more.
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 demonstrating it simply does not have a road-map 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 cannot visit 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.
Milana Nikolko is a Professor in the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, at Carleton University.
David Carment is a Fellow, at the Global Affairs Institute and Editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.