Kyiv’s Leverage Dwindles as the Crimean Water Crisis Comes to an End6 min read
After a seven-year ongoing blockade of Crimea’s water supply, Ukraine’s tactic of hindering the Russian occupation of the peninsula is losing steam. Moscow has taken bold and expensive steps to counteract the problem while Kyiv has sat idly by, hoping that sabotaging the Russian occupation could be enough to regain control. Ukraine’s plan had potential, but the inability to maintain and increase pressure on the occupation made their plan unsustainable and eventually led to its failure.
Crimea is dry – very dry. On its own, the peninsula could never survive, as the lack of water would make farming impossible, and the threat of desertification would surely limit population growth. The 1960s changed both the topography and economy of Crimea drastically with one single infrastructure project. The North Crimean Canal linked the massive Dnipro River with the arid peninsula, which allowed for farming at an unprecedented scale. At one point, even extremely water-intensive plants such as rice were grown in Crimea. Of course, access to seemingly limitless amounts of water enabled the growth of Crimea’s urban centers and tourist resorts too. In a normal year, 85% of water used in Crimea came from the Dnipro, traveling from mainland Ukraine through the North Crimean Canal to multiple destinations on the peninsula. This all changed in 2014.
After the Maidan revolution, Crimea was annexed by Russia and the war, initiated by Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas, broke out soon after. The thrown-together interim Yatsenyuk-Turchynov government in Kyiv had its hands tied. Giving up Crimea wasn’t an option, but the active violence in the east demanded a direct military response. The solution? Send troops to the Donbas and cut off Crimea’s water supply. After all, combining the hybrid war in Donbas with an open war against Russia would be unmanageable and, as the logic went, Russia may be able to sustain control over a healthy Crimea, but not over a Crimean desert. This strategy was smart, and essentially Kyiv’s only option. Nevertheless, as time went on, it has become abundantly clear that Russian rule was resilient to the lack of water, and Ukraine’s coercive strategy is no longer viable.
In the first years of Crimea’s occupation, Ukraine’s harsh policy, with the help of Mother Nature, seemed to be working effectively. Crimea was experiencing a drought, water levels in many of the peninsula’s reservoirs were drastically dropping, and the issue became an increasingly painful thorn in Putin’s side. The problem was exacerbated by the huge migration of Russians to Crimea, the significant expansion of the Russian military presence in Sevastopol, and a weak post-crisis economy which made paying for relief difficult. The situation worsened, and as water rations for city-dwellers in Simferopol were introduced and farmers began to abandon their fields, the Russian government even tried to bring the issue up at the United Nations. This effort failed, as most member states generally agreed that it is the occupier who bears the responsibility of providing for the local population.
Russia needed to get creative, as undoing Putin’s patriotic, morale-boosting takeover of Crimea was not an option. Bringing in water from the neighboring Kuban region was not plausible, because the agricultural heartland was already short on water. Pumping groundwater helped alleviate the pain, but, in reality, pumping dry ground is an unsustainable practice that results in the salinization of the soil. Building a desalination plant on Crimea long seemed impossible; Russia lacked the technology, and the desalination-savvy companies in the Arab Gulf weren’t likely to jump onboard a project that would risk damaging relations with the European Union. Nevertheless, in 2020 Russia announced that, despite doubts, it will invest in a desalination plant, along with a new reservoir and canal from the Russian mainland. A 2020 estimate expects the desalination plant alone to cost more than 100 million dollars. The water crisis has been painful and costly for Russia, but the Kremlin’s unwavering commitment to maintaining control over Crimea means that Russia is willing to make the effort and spend the money to manage the crisis. Kyiv, in its disadvantaged position, unfortunately couldn’t counter Russia’s efforts. Although forcing Russia to waste billions of rubles can be celebrated in Kyiv, the Kremlin’s upper hand is only getting stronger.
Kyiv has been stagnant on the Crimean issue, and it lacks the money and support to take Crimea back; direct war with Russia is a suicide mission, and the recent speeches at the Crimea Platform accentuate how half-hearted Western support won’t lead to tangible change. The water strategy was creative, but seven years since the blockade began, the Russian tricolor still flies over Simferopol and Sevastopol. This is, of course, partially out of Kyiv’s control. The issue of water as a tool of leverage is especially effective in hot and dry years, but 2021 has been cooler and wetter.
No one can control the weather in Crimea, but even during the reoccurring hot and dry years, Zelenskyy refused to use the water crisis as a bargaining chip. Although the canal blockage is clearly a tool of coercion in Ukrainian-Russian relations, it seems to be taboo in Kyiv to discuss offering to sell water to Crimea in exchange for concessions in the Donbas. Now, rainfall and cooler temperatures are buying Moscow more time until their water-supply projects are finished, completely eliminating any Ukrainian leverage at the negotiating table. If Ukraine would have taken Russia up on their offer to sell water to Crimea, perhaps they could have maintained long term influence. If the canal remained in use, Russia wouldn’t have even conjured up the plans to alternatively supply Crimea with water, and Ukraine could increase prices or decrease supply based on concessions in Donbas. Ukraine could have, in other words, treated their water canal to Crimea just as Russia treats its gas pipelines that traverse Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian government, however, failed to do this. Furthermore, once Russia manages to stabilize the situation with their multiple projects, the North Crimean Canal will be forgotten entirely.
Ukraine missed an opportunity, and this should be recognized. Zelenskyy and his allies in Kyiv and abroad need to understand that any compromise with Russia won’t fulfill all wishes of the Ukrainian side. These compromises need to be pragmatic, and can be formulated if Kyiv manages to conceptualize a clear list of priorities based on the wants and needs of Ukraine, but also in full consideration of reality. To achieve these prioritized goals, Kyiv must be ready to make tough decisions and utilize any leverage they have. Zelenskyy promised Ukraine peace, and the population is likely to forgive him for supplying water to Crimea if it could deliver favourable concessions in the east. Leverage in Crimea means leverage in Donbas, and Kyiv should use it before the Kremlin erases the problem altogether. Russia is investing heavily to settle the issue, and time is certainly on Moscow’s side. If Zelenskyy, and any succeeding government for that matter, aren’t willing to get creative and put their leverage to use, Russia’s upper hand will become too heavy to bear. With rain and rubles finally starting to pour into Crimea, the tipping point seems to have already been reached.