Crimea’s Water

Assuming the BBC hasn’t made a hash of it by making its usual basic factual errors, this is a fairly interesting article:

Russian officials say a water shortage in Crimea is threatening to become acute as Ukraine has reduced the supply via a key canal.

The North Crimea Canal delivers water to Crimea from the River Dnieper, in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region. The canal accounts for 80% of Crimea’s water.

_74442504_crimea_water_supply_624map2One or two of my regular readers had mentioned Crimea’s water supply as being critical earlier, and I’m surprised it’s not being talked about more.  I’m also surprised that Ukraine hasn’t cut the supply off altogether, or at least threatened to:

The canal authorities in Ukraine say Crimea has accumulated a huge debt for water supplied last year. The dispute is aggravated by the breakdown in relations between Kiev and Moscow.

Perhaps the government in Kiev are using this as leverage to prevent the Russians cutting off the gas supplies, as they are threatening to do?  Turn off the gas, and the Crimea goes thirsty.  In this regard, Ukraine has the seasons on its side:

Crimea’s harvest of grapes, rice, maize and soya will be ruined if it does not get more water soon, officials say.

The current water shortage is threatening 120,000 hectares (296,000 acres) of Crimea’s crops, which rely on irrigation, Russian Agriculture Minister Nikolai Fedorov said.

A ruined harvest across that area would mean losses of up to 5bn roubles (£83m; $140m), he told the Gazeta.ru news website.

Although I have an inkling that the long-term prospects of Crimea’s farmers are not going to be that rosy anyway: their main local market will soon be harder to reach:

Russia says the Crimea-Ukraine border is now officially a state border.

The Russian government plans to establish permanent checkpoints there, as well as new rules for entering or leaving Crimea, Ria Novosti news agency reports.

With all the inefficiency, bureaucracy, and corruption that accompanies a Russian-controlled border anywhere, this cannot be good for those who previously would have driven their produce straight to Kiev overnight.  It has now become a lot harder to reach a major population centre, of which there are none in the Crimea itself.

Of course, I think there are valid reasons why Ukraine didn’t retaliate by switching off the water to the Crimea.  It might well have been used by Putin as an excuse for a full-scale invasion, or to switch the gas off.  But more a more likely explanation is that the government in Kiev is incapable of making bold decisions and/or doesn’t want to be seen by the west to be deliberately inflicting hardship on a civilian population, some of which still consider themselves Ukrainian.  Or if they’re really smart, they’ll realise that a gradual lack of funding and effort in maintaining and operating the canal system to the Crimea will put the squeeze on the Russians anyway:

A BBC reporter in Crimea recently said the water supply was one of the chief concerns of local people, ahead of the controversial March referendum on joining Russia.

To deal with the shortage, new wells could be dug or water could be brought in from Russia, but such options are expensive, officials warn.

Indeed.  As I said before, I think the annexation of Crimea could turn out to be a very expensive welfare project for Russia, with little tangible benefit.

But there’s a more important point to be made here.  I’ve always thought that Putin was a master at playing a strong hand very badly; his country could have been much richer and interacted more favourably with the rest of the world had he left his ego, and those of the electorate, at the door.  But on this occasion it’s actually the opposite: he’s played a weak hand very well, albeit against an opposition who is hapless (Obama) and compromised (Germany).  The problem is that he doesn’t realise his hand was weak, he probably thinks – along with most Russians – that he has pulled off a military coup which puts him up there with Napolean and Spartacus in the ranks of military geniuses.  Now how many military geniuses of yore would have annexed a peninsula whose water supply lies in the hands of the enemy?  Exactly.  I’d not be surprised if Putin and his army had no idea where Crimea’s water supply came from until the annexation was complete and the Crimean “leader” was banging at the Kremlin door asking for a few billion roubles worth of infrastructure.

But it’s the non-response from the west that is most dangerous, because it will have convinced Putin that his hand is much stronger than it is, that he actually is some kind of Machiavellian genius, and that the west will continue to grumble but otherwise do nothing.  In such circumstances the potential for a miscaculation is enormous, and should this whole situation escalate it will likely be because Putin crosses a line in eastern Ukraine that nobody told him was there.  Putin’s not a complete idiot, he just thinks he’s smarter than he is, but leaving him to judge for himself exactly how far he can go before the west is compelled to intervene is a very dangerous game indeed.  Both sides could end up dragged into a nasty confrontation over an incident which would never have taken place had the Russians known what the stakes were.  At the moment, the Russians don’t know the stakes, and we’re leaving them to guess.  This is stupidly and unnecessarily dangerous.

As a final thought, I’ll say on here what I said in the comments of another blog.  Incredible though it is to believe, the current crop of western politicians have – via Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and others – managed to make George W. Bush look like one of the finest statesmen of his generation.  This alone is quite some achievement.

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6 Responses to Crimea’s Water

  1. dearieme says:

    I suppose you are arguing that W was an arsehole with a purpose, whereas these others are just arseholes. Maybe – but W cost his country, and other countries, a great deal of blood and treasure. We have yet to see what the free-style aresholes will achieve blood-and-treasure-wise.

  2. Tim Newman says:

    I suppose I’m arguing two things.

    Firstly, that Dubya laid his stall out, did what he said he was going to do, and remained largely predictable. That is of considerable importance in the affairs of any leader of significance, as it reduces the scope for miscalculation. By contrast, Obama flip-flops all over the place, and is prone to backtracking on earlier commitments, e.g. Syria. I am fairly confident that the Crimea would still belong to the Ukraine had a Bush been in the White House.

    Secondly, the US was already spending blood and treasure in containing Saddam Hussein when Bush Jnr. took office, which looked to go one indefinitely. His securing the Saudi and Kuwaiti oilfields from the threat of Saddam once and for all was likely something one of his successors would have had to do eventually anyway; the nation-building afterwards was a complete cock-up though. And Afghanistan was largely thrust upon him, short of allowing the Taliban to continue to harbour al-Qa’eda and allow them to operate the terrorist camps I don’t think he had any choice after 9/11. I’ve long said that history will be kind to Dubya, and seeing what’s happening in Syria now, I think the whole region is probably quite glad there is not a Saddam-era Iraq added to the mix.

    So although I think his aims were broadly sound, his manner of going about it was divisive and clumsy…until you look at the bunch of clowns we have running the show now.

  3. dearieme says:

    “Afghanistan was largely thrust upon him”: a punitive expedition, sure. But a War of Occupation was a matter of choice, and he made a lousy one resulting in yet another horribly expensive defeat for the USA. When I say “yet another” I’m thinking not just of Vietnam but also of “the nation-building afterwards was a complete cock-up” – when you have to pay tribute to local warlords to let you extract your troops in one piece, you have been licked good and proper.

  4. Tim Newman says:

    …a punitive expedition, sure. But a War of Occupation was a matter of choice, and he made a lousy one resulting in yet another horribly expensive defeat for the USA.

    No arguments from me there!

  5. Sergei says:

    Tim,
    perhaps you don’t know that I have been among your most loyal readers since about 2009. I have read every single post of you since you started the blog. I have also worked on Sakhalin at the same time you did…
    Anyway, I just wanted to say that most of the time I agree with what you say so fully that I don’t have much to add or argue. You are my alter ego… only a lot more eloquent and SSSooo much more humorous :) Your writing style is brilliant, and your sense of humor… sometimes my stomach muscles are aching.
    Thanks! And PLEASE do not stop. You surely know blogging in Russia will be strangled pretty soon (the law of treating bloggers as media). As someone (Radishchev?) said, in Russia much changes in 10 years — and nothing changes in 200 years. So… you will be among the few voices about Russia that actually understand the country, the people. Keep up. Thanks!
    PS: I think it is pretty clear that I agree with what you are saying in this post.
    Sergei

  6. Tim Newman says:

    Thanks Sergei, much appreciated!

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