SEVASTOPOL: Recent electricity outages which plunged Crimea into darkness have spotlighted the peninsula’s enduring heavy dependence on Ukraine more than five months after it was annexed by Moscow.
Lights went off for several hours in most cities around Crimea overnight last Sunday, including the major cities of Yalta and Sevastopol, the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
It was a dark reminder for Moscow that while it easily unilaterally incorporated Crimea into Russia in an institutional sense in March, it has a massive task to absorb the isolated peninsula economically.
Even when it was under Kiev’s control Crimea was difficult to supply, with infrastructure connected via the tiny slivers of land that run between the region and the Ukrainian mainland.
Now for Russia that challenge is multiplied as it has only tenuous air or sea links to the peninsula.
Crimea also remains highly dependent on Ukraine for water, food and transportation.
Kremlin-loyal officials on the peninsula were quick to hit out at Kiev when the lights went out.
Crimea’s acting governor Sergei Aksyonov called Sunday’s power outage an “act of sabotage by the Ukrainian authorities” aimed at disrupting the start of the school year.
But ironically it may be Russia’s policy towards Ukraine that is rebounding on Crimea.
Ukraine’s economy is flagging as Moscow has cut it off from Russian trade, and massive spending has been needed for the military campaign against pro-Russia rebels controlling much of the southeast.
Ukrainian power company Ukrinterenergo, which supplies 80 per cent of the electricity consumed by Crimea, said it has had to introduce restrictions owing to a fuel shortage crisis at its power stations.
“If Crimea’s consumers don’t respect these limits the company will be required to cut off completely its supplies to the peninsula,” the company said on Wednesday. Later it shut off power for three hours.
“We are very vulnerable in the energy sphere,” acknowledged the speaker of the Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov.
Crimea produces only 16 per cent of the electricity it needs, according to energy consultancy IHS Cera.
Moscow has sent several generators to Crimea to help in cases of outages and announced plans to build power stations to help the peninsula achieve energy independence.
“But that objective cannot be obtained in one day nor in one month,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said at a government meeting on Wednesday. “It is a difficult process.”
To help Crimea, the Kremlin has put together a five-year programme under which 660 billion roubles (13.7 billion euros, $17.9 billion) will be invested in the region from the federal budget.
More than a third of the total amount is to be spent on building a bridge linking Crimea with the Russian mainland.
That would help resolve another Crimean Achilles heel — more than 80 per cent of the food consumed on the peninsula had been coming in from Ukraine, according to local authorities.
This was not a problem for the first few months under Russian control, then as Ukrainian troops began at one point to get an upper hand over pro-Russia rebels, Moscow slapped a ban on a wide range of Ukrainian foods.
With a two-day wait for ferries to cross from Russia to Crimea, and shipped-in products being more expensive for locals who earn considerably less than on mainland Russia, the local administration asked for exceptions for the import of milk and other dairy products, potatoes, beef, tomatoes and corn from Ukraine.
“We are in a period of transition and are still like Siamese twins with Ukraine, especially in terms of milk and dairy products,” said the region’s Agriculture Minister Nikolai Polyushkin.
Although the bans were imposed ostensibly because of health concerns, Crimea benefited from an exception until January.
Crimea has also been highly dependent on Ukraine for fresh water, with 85 per cent of its needs coming via a canal from the mainland. That was at least until April, when the taps were turned off in a move denounced by local authorities as “Kiev’s revenge”.
Without irrigation, farmers could suffer losses of up to 5.0 billion roubles (105 million euros, $135 million), according to Russian agriculture ministry estimates.
“We’ve been forced to review water use efficiency on the peninsula,” acknowledged Crimea’s agriculture chief Polyushkin at a round-table last month.
Out went the cultivation of rice, which is extremely water intensive, and had been consuming about two-thirds of irrigation water.
The peninsula has been drilling wells and is examining building a pipeline to bring in water from Russia, said the minister.
Polyushkin said Crimea could also employ a technology developed by the Soviet military to seed clouds and “make it rain”.