KYIV – Crimean Tatars last weekend launched their biggest countermeasure since the beginning of the Russian occupation of their homeland by ruining four electricity lines, situated in the neighboring Kherson Oblast, that account for 70 percent of the peninsula’s electricity. Authorities declared a state of emergency on the morning of November 22.
By the time they woke up, the majority of Crimean residents were lacking access to not only electricity, but also water, heat, gasoline and cash, the news.allcrimea.net website reported. Half of the peninsula’s supermarkets were closed, while schools and nurseries were closed on Monday.
“Putin was caught with his pants down,” said Petro Oleshchuk, a political science lecturer at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. “He really didn’t expect it. Now imagine for yourselves what ‘ironclad’ guarantees did Putin have that Crimea will receive electricity from Ukraine?”
Mustafa Dzhemilev, the president’s ombudsman on Crimean Tatar affairs, said on November 23 that activists cut the electricity in order to force the release of political prisoners being held in Crimea and Russia, among other political aims, reported the liga.net news agency.
Though repairs of the electrical lines began as early as November 25, the sabotage escalated tensions with Russia, which already on November 18 had declared a ban on all Ukrainian imports because of the planned January 1, 2016, launch of the free trade area with the European Union.
On November 23, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers imposed a trade embargo – including land, sea and air – on the Crimean peninsula. On November 24, the Russian military dispatched two tactical assault units from Russia to the Crimean border with Ukraine, as reported by the Ukrainian government.
Russia also ceased coal exports to Ukraine the same day, as reported by the kommersant.ru news site – a move observers said is intended to hurt Ukraine’s electricity production. The supplies were being blocked by Russian customs agents, though the Russian government had yet to officially declare the blockade.
On November 25, Ukraine’s Cabinet decided to prohibit all transit flights by all Russian airlines over Ukrainian air space, starting November 26.
That same day, Crimean Parliament Chair Vladimir Konstantinov accused the Ukrainian government of sharing responsibility for the cuts in electricity supply, dismissing its claims that the Citizens Blockade of Crimea organization was solely responsible.
“This is all being handled by the official government,” he said, as reported by the pravda.com.ua news site. “They are directing this, pulling the strings, and trying to ignite conflict between Russians and Crimean Tatars on the peninsula.”
Despite such accusations, it was apparent that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko didn’t support the cuts to electricity.
To stop the activists, the Ukrainian government dispatched National Guardsmen and fighters of the Kherson Battalion, a division of the Internal Affairs Ministry. Clashes resulted in about half a dozen injured, including a Crimean Tatar journalist with the ATR television network.
At the same time, Mr. Poroshenko held a meeting in the Presidential Administration with Crimean Tatar leaders, who were accompanied by more than 100 demonstrators outside, on Bankova Street, who called for the president not to allow law enforcement officers to interfere with the activists.
“Instead of supporting the initiative of patriots and Tatars, Poroshenko began to fidget in his chair, as always,” said Dr. Oleh Soskin, the director of the Institute of Society Transformation in Kyiv. “The blockade is needed to show that Putin is not in any condition to fulfill his promises, that he is not in any condition to create an economic miracle on the Crimean peninsula. Crimea is not Singapore, not Hong Kong and not Taiwan. Putin simply lied.”
As a result of the meeting, Mr. Poroshenko agreed to order the Cabinet of Ministers to impose a trade embargo on Crimea, said Refat Chubarov, the head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis. The Cabinet fulfilled the order with the State Border Service implementing it on November 24.
Another meeting participant, Mr. Dzhemilev, said the president asked the Tatar leaders to discuss the electricity embargo with Energy Minister Volodymyr Demchyshyn.
Widely recognized as being Mr. Poroshenko’s loyal agent in the energy sphere, Mr. Demchyshyn pointed out at a November 23 press conference that the sale of electricity to Crimea brought 300 million hrv ($12.5 million U.S.) in profit this year and was “commercially advantageous” for the Ukrainian government.
The president’s position rejecting the electricity cuts was supported by the German government on November 23, whose Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesman Martin Schaefer called for the Ukrainian government to investigate the sabotage, as reported by the Deutsche Welle news agency.
The German government hopes the electricity supply will be renewed and such incidents won’t repeat themselves, he said. The political conflict shouldn’t be resolved at the expense of Crimean residents, he said. At the same time, European Union sanctions against Russia will be renewed.
“Ukraine is well within its rights to cut off the electricity,” said John Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “After all, the Kremlin seized Crimea by force in violation of international law and is repressing ethnic Ukrainians, Tatars, the Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Uniate Church in Crimea.”
He continued, “Still, it might not be politically prudent for Ukraine to shut off the lights in Crimea. It’s critical for Ukraine to maintain European support – which means German support – for the sanctions. It would not be improper for Ukraine to ask the EU, in exchange for ensuring the supply of electricity to Crimea, to speak against Russian human rights abuses on the peninsula.”
Activists have allowed crews to conduct all the necessary repairs, Mr. Dzhemilev told the Deutsche Welle news agency on November 24, a day after he said that such repairs would only be allowed after the release of political prisoners, which hadn’t happened.
He said the Tatars’ demands hadn’t changed. They continue to press the government to cease supplying electricity and to halt trade to Crimea “for as long as the rights of our citizens are being violated.”