As violence rages in Odessa and eastern Ukraine, with buildings burning, helicopters downed, urban combat and hostage taking, chaos may soon solidify into a concerted Russian military campaign. But if Moscow's tanks and thousands of troops cross Ukraine’s eastern border in the regions of Slovyansk, Donetsk and Kharkiv, don’t expect them to roll like thunder toward Kiev. Their first move will likely be a quick drive through Zaporizhia and Kherson toward… Crimea. There are several reasons for this: one obvious one being that military assets in Kremlin-annexed Crimea currently are inaccessible to Russia by land. But there is another more basic reason: resources.
Crimea may be formally and theoretically part of Russia at this point, but it still relies on the Ukraine mainland for the most basic of necessities such as water and electricity. Thus Russian forces may soon resort to an armed southern invasion to take control of the pipelines that feed Crimea, and once that bridge is crossed, as it were, the military campaign could stretch all the way to Transnistria, the breakaway eastern province of Moldova.
The amount of the water currently flowing through the North Crimea Channel into the peninsula is less than 60 percent of what it was before the Russian occupation. Crimea relies on the Ukrainian mainland for 80 percent of its local water supply, and much of Crimea is farmland. A lack of water could influence dramatically this year’s harvest and could potentially render the Crimean peninsula an agricultural wasteland. So much for the dreams of security and prosperity that were part of Moscow’s psy-ops. As millions learned under the Soviets, propaganda doesn’t grow beans.
The government in Kiev says that Crimea is not paying for the water the peninsula is consuming and that the peninsula has accrued a debt of nearly $200,000. (This echoes, of course, Moscow’s insistence that Ukraine pay more for Russian gas.) Kiev calls this “the practice of unauthorized water intake” or to put it simply, Crimea is stealing our water: more than four million cubic meters worth. Self-declared Russo-Crimean authorities, on the other hand, claim that Kiev’s price of $1 USD for a cubic meter is too expensive.
At first the water war was primarily a legal dispute with each side accusing the other of contractual violations. But self-declared “Crimean parliament chairman” Vladimir Konstantinov has responded to Kiev’s tightening of the taps with rage and threats of retaliation. “The North Crimea Channel was built by Crimeans, it is our channel, and they grabbed at that pipeline valve with both hands,” he claimed. Konstantinov says he hopes that “common sense” will prevail (no irony there), but if it does not, he warns ominously, “We know what to do.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has suggested two implausible solutions to Crimea’s water problem: building a water supply system directly from Russia (about a 200 kilometer stretch) or building a desalination plant. A similar desalination plant already has been operating for half a year in Crimea and it produces only 80 cubic meters (at $1.2 USD per cubic meter) of fresh water a day. Just to compare: the North Crimea Channel pumps 82 cubic meters a second. The weakest aspect of Medvedev’s projects is the time necessary for their completion.
Meanwhile Crimean farmers say that they have just days before this season’s sowing process fails. Of course, if we can mix our classical references, Russia has its Sword of Damocles to cut this Gordian Knot. Putin’s army waits at the Ukrainian border and if the Kremlin officially affirms the need to “protect” Russian-speaking Ukrainians’ rights, those forces already have their target.
The Kremlin’s rational: Why should Moscow worry about solving the logistical problems of freshly-seized lands (like Crimea) if it can simply just seize more? If Ukraine refuses to provide water at a convenient price then why not just take the whole pipeline?
Water isn’t the only issue. Crimea has similar difficulties with electricity. Recently the local Crimean branch of the Ukrainian DTEK company declared that it could switch off the energy supply to local inhabitants because of the mounting energy debt, which has reached $74.1 million. There were some rumors that Russians “suggested” that the owner of DTEK Rinat Akhmetov sell his business, but he refused. Regardless, Crimea doesn’t have its own independent energy supply and as of now it remains dependent on the Ukrainian mainland.
If Putin decides to resolve some old problems with an armed invasion, he will only find new ones—Western sanctions and Ukrainian resistance will be hard to ignore and even harder to overcome. The kinds of practical problems that now face Russia as it holds on to Crimea will multiply if it tried to occupy still more territory.