Who stands behind the destruction of electricity pylons in southern Ukraine that left almost 2 million residents of Crimea in the dark? And why isn't Russia supplying power to its annexed territory in the first place?
RFE/RL's Current Time provides answers to these and other questions related to the Crimean energy sector and the blackout that left the peninsula in a state of emergency.
At around 4:30 a.m. on November 20, separate distress signals indicated that power lines that carry electricity from mainland Ukraine into the annexed Crimean peninsula had been damaged.
According to the website of Ukrenergo, the Ukrainian company responsible for supplying Crimea with electricity, two pylons in Chaplynka, Kherson Oblast, had been downed and two others damaged. The damage, reportedly caused by antitank missiles, left the powerlines functioning partially, but Crimea was still being provided with electricity.
Shortly before midnight on November 21, another distress signal was received. At least one more pylon was toppled, grounding a transmission cable, and completely cutting off the power lines sending electricity to Crimea.
As a result, Crimea completely lost power for about 6 1/2 hours. Later, generators were used to restore power to some cities and the Russian Ministry of Energy created a schedule according to which certain areas of Crimea are powered down for a few hours daily. Districts in Sevastopol, a large Crimean city that hosts a Russian naval base, receive electricity for three hours at a time.
This can mean long waits without electricity. An RFE/RL Crimean Desk journalist, who lives in Simferopol, reports that the central district of the Crimean capital had no power for 34 hours in a row.
Ukrenergo claims the peninsula is critically dependent on Ukrainian supplies. The company claims that Ukraine supplies Crimea with 650 megawatts of electricity daily, while the peninsula requires 900-950.
Who Is Behind The Explosions?
Nobody has yet taken responsibility for blowing up the power lines, but Ukraine’s Security Service claims that they have identified a group of suspects.
Activists who have been enforcing a blockade of Ukrainian goods from entering Crimea since September 20 have denied responsibility, though they have not distanced themselves from the act. Prior to the explosions, on November 12, the blockade’s coordinator, Lenur Islyamov, had said he would stop patrolling the territory around the power lines to give “any activists an opportunity” to damage them.
An employee covers a lion cub with a quilt during the blackout at the Safari Park Taigan in the town of Belogorsk, Crimea.
When the attacks did take place, Islyamov said they could have been orchestrated by anybody.
“It could have been saboteurs who came from Crimea or saboteurs who are here or it could have been Ukraine’s patriots. It could have been anybody, but we have nothing to do with this,” he said.
The activists, however, prevented officials from accessing the site to repair the damage. The only repair works so far have been to ground the electricity wires.
Aksyonov has promised to find “all these scumbags” who took part in the incident.
Why Is Ukraine Supplying Electricity To Crimea In The First Place?
Ukraine’s electricity sector is run by a state company called Ukrenergo. It is a network of electricity, heating, and other energy facilities with a common mode of generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity and heat. Therefore, it may not make any decisions about cutting power supplies on its own, especially if these decisions go against Ukrainian law or any other contract Ukrenergo previously signed.
Ukraine is also a signatory of the 1991 Energy Charter Treaty, a document that defines the rule of cross-border work for the energy industry. The document specifically states that “the transit of energy materials and products may not be interrupted or reduced in the case of a dispute on transit arrangements before the relevant dispute settlement procedures have been followed.”
If Ukraine were to reduce its electricity supply to Crimea, it would also have to reduce the capacity of its own nuclear power plants as the energy markets of Ukraine and Crimea are interconnected. Ukraine already reduced the capacities of four of its nuclear plants.
“Thus we damage, even if a little bit, the energy market, because it increases the cost of electricity production. Moreover, we need to provide for Kherson and Mykolaiv oblasts. We already, unfortunately, see evidence that parts of these oblasts may be without power," said Yuriy Korolchuk, an expert from the Institute of Energy, in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.
Bread in Simferopol is in short supply due to the constant power outages.
Ukraine will also suffer financial losses from a cut in electricity. The country’s energy minister, Volodymyr Demchyshyn, said that Kyiv made approximately 300 million hryvnas (more than $12.5 million) in the last 10 months through electricity sales to Crimea.
Why Doesn’t Russia Supply Crimea With Electricity?
Ukraine was covering all additional Crimean electricity needs before the current crisis. Therefore, for Russia, it wasn’t a pressing issue. But the peninsula is not connected to Russia by land, so providing it with electricity without going through Ukraine is a difficult proposition.
Russian Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak has promised that by the end of December the first part of an energy bridge between Russia and Crimea will be finished, allowing Russian electricity to cover 70-80 percent of the peninsula’s electricity needs. Russia plans to finish the construction in May 2016.
“Crimea will be completely provided with electricity by its own generation and energy system transfers from Russia,” said Novak.
However, Ukraine’s former minister of energy and coal industry, Vadym Ulyda, says that Crimea would need at least two to three years to become energy-independent from Ukraine. While construction of the energy bridge between Ukraine and Russia will soon be completed, it won’t immediately be technically ready to bring relief to the peninsula.
For now, Russia is planning to send 300 low-power generators to Crimea.
What Is Ukraine's Official Stance?
While the government has said it will attempt to repair the lines, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has also said Kyiv should heed activists’ demands to suspend reciprocal cargo transport and trade between Ukraine and Crimea. (Activists have been blocking cargo transports without explicit approval from the Ukrainian government since September.)
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also announced a temporary ban on cargo transportation between mainland Ukraine and Crimea shortly after Poroshenko’s statement.
Some say that suspension of market relations with Crimea on the official level would satisfy the activists so that the power lines may be accessed and repaired.
How Have Crimeans Reacted To The Lack Of Power?
Some Crimeans reacted to the blockade with stoicism.
“We know these radicals. We’ve lived with them for 20 years. They can’t scare Crimeans with it,” said a woman in an interview with RFE/RL's Crimean Desk.
Others, however, seem to be giving up on the idea that Crimea would ever return to Ukraine. “We are not worried. Soon we’ll refuse Ukraine completely. Its water and electricity, too,” said a man.
WATCH: Crimeans React To The Blackout