A nasty case of pylons seals Crimea's exit from Ukraine

A nasty case of pylons seals Crimea's exit from Ukraine
By Nick Allen in Warsaw November 27, 2015

After pulling their punches for 20 months, Ukraine and Russia are losing the gloves and slogging it out in a trade, energy and infrastructure knuckle fight over the former Soviet Union’s messiest divorce. 

Rising political tensions amid the proxy military conflict in the Donbas have set the stage for their final untangling and estrangement. But the unexpected catalyst was the blasting of pylons carrying Russian-bought, Ukrainian electricity to Crimea on November 20-21. The wreckage bore Ukrainian flags, focusing suspicions on ethnic Tatars and nationalists who have blocked freight transport to Crimea for two months in a continuing protest at the peninsula's annexation by Russia in March 2014. 

Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov called the cutting of power to the peninsula's 2mn inhabitants a "terrorist act", as the lines were drawn for the last throes of Russian-Ukrainian separation. "No-one will bring Crimeans to their knees, we won't allow for negotiations," Aksyonov said defiantly "We won't let anyone speak to us in the language of blackmail."

Crimea is dependent on Ukraine for 70% of its electricity supply, and four days after the pylons were brought down only around 40% of its electricity needs were covered from back-up sources. As a result, people are lacking water, heating, gasoline and access to cash. Half of Crimea's supermarkets were closed and the lions in the zoo are sleeping under blankets.

Kyiv responded to the sabotage not by clearing mobs of protesters at the site to allow engineers to fix the lines, but rather with a full road, rail and sea embargo of Crimea, which Ukraine has watched with dismay slip from the international agenda amid other crises.

Ukraine is also threatening to retaliate against all Russian trade next year. On November 25, after Russia said it would introduce a food embargo against Ukraine in 2016 in retaliation for the EU-Ukraine free trade pact entering into effect next year, Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said Ukraine would not take this lying down.

"I want to make it clear that Russia's threats of food embargo on Ukrainian commodities from January 1 are getting similar mirror-like response from Ukraine's authorities," Yatsenyuk said.

Upstaged escalation

While the world's attention turned to Moscow's confrontation with Ankara over the downed Su-24 bomber by the Syrian border, Ukraine and Russia exchanged more tit-for-tat measures, signposting the one-way road to their final separation.

Yatsenyuk also announced the enforcement of a full ban on Russian transit flights through his country. And Ukraine will also no longer take natural gas from Russia but get it from EU countries, he declared.

Gazprom chief Alexei Miller countered that it was in fact Russia that turned off the stop cocks after Ukraine failed to pre-pay supplies. Miller also said that "before the seriously cold weather [arrives], Ukraine has now started active selection of gas from underground storage facilities, which are insufficiently filled as it is".

Ukraine's "refusal to buy Russian gas threatens a safe gas transit to Europe through Ukraine and gas supplies to Ukraine consumers in the coming winter", Miller added in a thinly veiled warning of possible consequences for EU countries standing behind Ukraine.

As for the bigger picture of gas supplies, state-controlled Gazprom announced earlier in the year that it would route its gas supplies to Europe around Ukraine by 2018, mainly via the new Nord Stream II project agreed in September, which will pipe gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea.

In other infrastructural moves cementing the inter-state divorce, Moscow in September also approved a new railway line to southern Russia that bypasses Ukraine altogether.

A further backlash from the Crimean power cut-off that also raises the freezing and blackout prospects for Ukraine this winter, Russia declared a halt to anthracite coal shipments to Ukraine on November 25, and it holds most of the cards regarding alternative supplies.

"It won't be a problem for the Ukrainian energy system to get smoothly though this winter without Russian anthracite, if the anthracite is regularly supplied from the occupied territories of Donbas," wrote Concorde Capital analyst Alexander Paraschiy. "Unfortunately, such supplies are not secured, given that it's Russia that's the decision-maker on the occupied territories. Therefore, the risks of new blackouts in Ukraine this winter is increasing." Official Ukrainian data on stockpiles of anthracite coal suggest these are enough for power plants to operate only one month, he noted.

Right on cue, Donbas rebels announced on November 26 that they had also halted coal supplies to Kyiv-controlled territories. "An embargo on coal supplies to Ukraine has been introduced provisionally for two weeks," Eduard Polyakov, an official in the rebel authorities in Donetsk region, told news agency rbc.ua.

Final farewell

But as Russia postures on the global stage in the conflict with Turkey, parallel events have embarrassingly exposed its Achilles heel - Crimea's vulnerability to attack in one form or another. Moscow is now rushing to rectify this, with engineers working overtime to connect a power line across the Kerch Strait from the Russian mainland many months ahead of schedule. 

Not red-faced for long, though, officials in Moscow decided to spin the Crimean cut-off as the denouement of its transfer to Russia.

The chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s international affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachyov, said the sabotage was an indication that Kiev no longer regards the peninsula as its territory to any extent.

"Apparently, it no longer thinks so, starting from this very moment," Kosachyov said. "These explosions have shattered the latest illusions of those who may have still doubted whether Crimea made the right choice [in the internationally criticised March 2014 referendum to rejoin Russia]. It was not an invitation to return. It was a gesture of final farewell to Crimea."

While Crimea must still be returned to Ukraine in EU memorandums and most countries' official stances, the creeping acceptance of its de facto permanent loss is evident.

In official discussions of Ukraine at the moment, references to Crimea take a back seat. In various other contexts too, its Ukrainian status seems to have been forgotten. In April, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) said it saw no problem for Crimean tennis players being part of the Russian national team April. In October, French publishing house Larousse published a socio-economic atlas of the world for 2016 showing a map of Ukraine without Crimea.

Not that acceptance or rejection of the peninsula's new status as a Russian subject bothers Moscow. Having seemingly weathered the worst of the sanctions storm, it has drawn a thick line under the issue.

"Crimea is part of Russia," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed in July. "There were no talks with anybody about Crimea, there are no talks and there can be no talks."