Darkness in Simferopol.

Photographer: MAX VETROV/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine Bids for Attention With Crimea Blackout

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Even if Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to end his country's conflict with Ukraine so he could build an alliance with Western powers to beat Islamic State -- and it's not clear at all that he does -- Ukrainians wouldn't let him.

In the last minutes of Nov. 21, someone (more on that later) blew up two transmission towers in Ukraine's Kherson region, cutting off Crimea's electricity. Lights went out all over the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine last year. Plunged into darkness, citizens heard loudspeaker announcements: The authorities are doing their best to resolve the situation, stay calm, Nov. 23 will be a day off for everyone but civil servants. On Monday morning, according to the Russian energy ministry, 1.66 million of Crimea's 2 million residents still didn't have power in their homes. Hospitals, garrisons and government offices were running on emergency backup. There wasn't much the Russian authorities in Crimea could do except wait for Ukrainians to restore supply, but that might be too much to ask of them.

In September, 2014, as fighting raged in eastern Ukraine between the country's military and pro-Russian separatists aided by Russian troops, the parliament in Kiev -- which doesn't recognize Crimea's  annexation -- declared the peninsula a free economic zone, effectively allowing the free movement of Ukrainian goods to the Russian-held territory. Another free economic zone exists on the Russian side. The arrangement gave Ukrainian producers a chance to export duty-free to Russia, though technically only to Crimea. 

Four months later, the Ukrainian government approved a year-long deal with Inter RAO, a large Russian electricity supplier, to provide electricity to Crimea and to the rest of Ukraine. The country didn't produce enough to cover its needs, and it depended on Russian coal imports to power its generation.

Despite the conflict between the two countries and Putin's military aggression, the two economies remain intertwined. Despite a two-thirds drop in Ukrainian exports to Russia in January through August (in line with the overall export decline), these exports are still bigger than to Poland, Germany and France combined. Moscow remains Kiev's biggest trading partner in terms of both exports and imports. That's an uncomfortable fact for Ukrainian officials whose avowed goal is integration into the European Union. Their rhetoric is fiercely anti-Russian, and squaring the deals with it is not easy -- Ukraine's powerful, unruly civil society is extremely sensitive to hypocrisy. Since the 2014 "Revolution of Dignity," it is also prone to taking matters into its own hands.

On Sept. 20, Crimean Tatar activists and the Ukrainian extreme nationalist group Right Sector decided to do away with the Crimean free economic zone, claiming that 80 percent of the Ukrainian food sent to Crimea went on to mainland Russia to take advantage of higher prices there. "We cannot feed the bandits who mistreat our compatriots in the occupied territories," Mustafa Jemilev, a veteran Tatar activist banned from entering Russia, explained at a press conference. 

The Tatars and ultranationalists established checkpoints on roads leading to the peninsula and stopped letting trucks through. The government probably could have unblocked the roads, but chose not to interfere. Jemilev and another Tatar leader who helped establish the "food blockade," Refat Chubarov, are both parliament members elected on President Petro Poroshenko's party ticket. Soon after the blockade began, Poroshenko appointed Jemilev head of Ukraine's Anti-Corruption Policy Council. During a meeting with Jemilev and Chubarov, Poroshenko promised to have the free economic zone law rescinded.

The "blockade" probably did more damage to Ukrainian companies than to Russian power in Crimea: Stores in the peninsula filled with Russian and Turkish goods, albeit at higher prices. Yet the activists who maintain the checkpoints had a more potent weapon. On Nov. 13, the Ukrainian utility, Ukrenergo, announced that the country no longer needed Russian electricity because some new nuclear power capacity had just come online. Just a week later, the first two transmission towers in the Kherson region were blown up.

Kiev dispatched a national guard unit headed by Ilya Kiva, an eastern war hero who used to be a Right Sector leader, to restore peace to the area and make sure nobody died from contact with dangling high-voltage cables. The group was attacked by activists, some of them balaclava-clad, and one of the servicemen was stabbed. After Kiva left, the remaining two transmission towers exploded. Rather than get mad and threaten destruction, Kiva posted half-apologetic messages on Facebook showing he sympathized with the protesters. "The blockade continues!" he wrote. "Crimea has no light! I'm off to bed."

Ukraine's energy minister, Vladimir Demchishin, said on Monday that electricity could be restored within 72 hours, but workers would need the police to ensure access to the area. That's apparently not forthcoming. The national police force put out a statement late on Saturday saying: "All matters of energy supplies to occupied territories must be handled at the government level. The national police does not involve itself in political actions and doesn't interfere with their progress."

Jemilev has promised to let repair crews do their job, but he stressed that energy supplies from Ukraine to Crimea should be stopped, so it's not clear whether the repairs will take place anytime soon. It's clear that the Ukrainian government is unwilling to take on the activists so that life in Russian-held Crimea could go back to normal. That would be highly unpopular. "People in Crimea must bear their share of responsibility for the decisions they made, or that were made for them, in 2014," journalist Vakhtang Kipiani wrote on Facebook. 

Russia foresaw attempts to cut off power to Crimea, and it's laid a high voltage cable across the bottom of the Kerch Strait that separates the peninsula from the Russian mainland. The project suffered from delays because Russia didn't have the thick cable or the expertise required to lay it, and European, Japanese and Korean companies initially interested in the project refused to take it on because of Crimea-related economic sanctions. The Russian energy ministry now says Russian companies were building the "energy bridge" with no outside help, though Ukrainian investigative journalists have reported that a Chinese firm was doing the job. In any case, the undersea cable is supposed to go live by the end of the year. Crimea can hardly wait that long to get power back.

Russia and Ukraine have been exchanging economic blows every few weeks. Air travel between the two countries has been cut off since last month; Ukraine demanded a hefty fine from Russian carriers for flying to Crimea, but they refused to pay and were banned from Ukrainian airports.  In response, Moscow banned Ukrainian airlines from flying to Russia. For next year, Russia is imposing a food-import embargo on Ukraine, like the one already in effect against most Western countries. 

The Crimea energy situation, however, is more dangerous than any of that tit-for-tat. Russians who backed the annexation, Purtin's core electorate, expect the president to deal with such threats. All he can do, short of sending troops into mainland Ukraine, is to lean on the Kiev government. But even if it is capable of fully controlling its territory, it is playing a complicated game with the protesters, whose leaders are part of the political establishment.

Regardless of how the crisis is resolved, Ukraine is not a receding hot spot. Poroshenko and other politicians in Kiev desperately need international attention to their fight against Putin, not to the persistent corruption and paralysis that have prevented the government from introducing meaningful reforms. They know Putin doesn't want to take harsh action because recent terrorist attacks have made him a more legitimate ally for the West in the fight against Islamic State. Poroshenko cannot allow a rapprochement between Russia, Europe and the U.S. because he's afraid his government will lose Western support.

Putin, for his part, has proved that he has no reverse gear. He will be putting pressure on Kiev and perhaps stepping up military activity against Ukraine even as an alliance against Islamic State is discussed. Western leaders shouldn't expect concessions from him. They must either reject his offers of a closer alliance or embrace them on a tactical level, with the understanding that Putin is not giving anything up in return.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net