MOSCOW — On Sunday, Nov. 22, the lights went off for close to 2 million people in Crimea.
Since early September, Ukrainian activists—camouflage-wearing militia from the nationalist Right Sector and Tatar refugees from Crimea—had been threatening to cut off Crimea from all key resources, including electricity. This would be punishment for the Russian seizure and annexation of the strategic peninsula. And now the activists had carried out their threat. Two explosions had collapsed pylons supporting the Kakhovskaya-Titan and Melitopol-Dzhankoi power lines. The result was an almost complete blackout. By Monday about 1.9 million people were left without power and light.
The timing was significant. This was the second anniversary of the uprising now known as the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, and suddenly Crimea was plunged into darkness. Crimean drivers complained of long lines outside every gas station. For most of the daytime private apartments had no light.
And Russia and Ukraine, it seems, are plunged into a new wave of mutual abuses, threats of “mirror responses.” Although the hot war in Donbas seemed to have abated this fall, with a noticeable spike in fighting in the past two weeks, Russia and Ukraine have promised mutual retaliation. “The tensions continue, the conflict on the border has not been frozen,” Fyodor Lukyanov, the chair of the pro-Kremlin Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “But Russia’s ambitions have dried out in Ukraine.”
This was the same day that Moscow was dealing with another conflict, this one with Turkey, whose fighter jets shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber. “The more the world pays attention to Syria, the harder the Ukrainian side works on staging radical recidivous attacks in order to attract attention,” Lukyanov said. The expert also admitted that “the ceasefire in Donbas held better in September but now we see, that the situation is worsening, again.”
Moscow was furious with Ukraine for the Crimea blackout, and is eager for revenge. Last week, Russian energy minister Alexander Novak suggested that Russia would stop supplying coal to Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich supported the idea. If implemented, the ban would stop about 200,000-300,000 tons of Russian coal from entering Ukraine—about a third of all the coal Ukraine needs annually.
Russian officials referred to the explosions on the Crimean border as “terrorist acts” and complain that Kiev was not able to bring repair crews to the blown-up towers. And Ukrainian authorities struggled to decide what to do next, how to use the blackout in the negotiation process with Russia.
The first reaction Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had on Day One of the outage last week was to cut all trade with Crimea. That was exactly what Crimea blockade protesters have demanded since early September.
Right Sector’s spokesman Aleksey Byk had declared, “It will be a complete blockade. We have managed to block all the road. Then we are discussing the cut of all electricity power lines or just turn them off, so the peninsular will turn into a real island.” Byk also promised a food blockade.
Although going against any civil movements is highly unpopular, Kiev struggled to take control of the road to the peninsula. Last Friday, Ukrainian Interior Ministry commander Ilya Kiva was assigned to bring electricians and fix the blown-up towers in Chaplynka. His men were attacked on the road by camouflaged militiamen; some activists were in black balaclavas.
Later that evening, Khiva heard two explosions. By Monday, all of Crimea had been switched off, according to Viktor Plakida, head of Crimea’s electricity company Krymenergo. Some shops and gas stations closed and nobody knew for how long. Local leaders promised to restore power lines by mid-December. That would be within days of Moscow’s promised embargo on Ukrainian goods, set for Jan. 1.
The Kremlin has already had success imposing economic embargoes as retaliation against its neighbors. The impact of Russian sanctions damaged Georgia’s economy by $600 million in 2006, a significant amount for a small developing country. Then, as a result of its summer war with Russia in 2008, Georgia lost 20 percent of its territory. Since then, Tbilisi’s made an accommodation with having its land annexed at gunpoint by offering itself as a far more competent and preferable government under which to live than Moscow’s. “The Russian military currently builds barbwire fences to cut us from our territories, but we are optimistic, as people on the other side of the fence prefer to travel to Georgia for medical treatment and education because our services are non-corrupt, unlike in Russia,” Georgia’s Minister of Reconciliation and Civil Equality Paata Zareishvili told The Daily Beast.
For its part, Kiev has yet to work out a strategy for dealing with an occupied Crimea, and an increasingly restive civil protest movements that wants to reclaim the peninsula by any means necessary. “Instead of ‘What to do?’ our society is still offered to think of ‘Who is guilty?’,” Ukraine’s independent newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda reported this week.