SIMFEROPOL, Crimea – Within days of Crimea being swallowed up by Russia, the lights began flickering out.
Officials in the peninsula accused Ukraine of halving electricity supplies in order to bully Crimea, which voted this month in a referendum to secede and join Russia.
Cutting supplies is an attempt by Kiev to blackmail Russia through Crimea, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov wrote on his Twitter account.
Aksyonov’s combative reaction reflects a sobering reality for Crimea: the strategic peninsula’s overwhelming reliance on electricity and water supplies from mainland Ukraine. The Kiev government, which has been unable to prevent the Russian annexation, still wields a weapon it can use to bargain with its aggressive neighbor.
Crimea gets about 80 percent of its electricity and a similar share of its water needs from Ukraine.
But Ukraine also needs to be careful not to hit Crimeans too hard over electricity and water. It cannot afford to be seen hurting ordinary people as it argues that the region remains part of its territory.
Analysts say that Ukraine will likely be able to charge higher prices for power and water supplies to Crimea, but it won’t get any leverage on political and security issues.
Ukrainian authorities have described power cutoffs to Crimea this week as simply the result of technical maintenance and insist they would do nothing to harm residents.
Russian officials have rushed to the rescue with hundreds of diesel generators and started drafting plans to connect the region’s electrical grid to mainland Russia, which is separated from Crimea by the Kerch Strait. They said a possible water shortage could be offset by more efficient use of existing resources.
Those reassurances have provided little comfort to Filipp Savchenko, the 29-year-old owner of a refrigeration and logistics business in Simferopol, the Crimean capital.
Savchenko said Tuesday that the power had been out for two nights at his warehouse, where he stores about $9,000 of produce daily for his clients.
With the help of the generators we have, we were able to survive, Savchenko said. But if they turn (the electricity) off in the future or for longer, we won’t be able to cope. We’ll lose our produce, and business owners will have legal issues with us.
Regardless of the intention behind the recent blackouts, they have underscored Crimea’s dependency on mainland Ukraine.
They also highlight its lack of a real contingency plan if Kiev does decide to pull the plug. Irrigation has long been a headache for Crimea and could become so again, should Ukraine choose to apply pressure by closing off the Soviet-built canals fed by the Dnipro River.
Deputy Crimean Premier Rustam Temirgaliyev has grimly acknowledged that the peninsula has not to date found any alternative to water supplies from the Dnipro.