On Friday, November 20 (the second anniversary of the Maidan) two pylons carrying electricity to Crimea from mainland Ukraine were damaged in a series of explosions. Two more pylons were blown up two days later. With the peninsula effectively cut off from its chief source of electricity, the Crimean authorities briefly declared a state of emergency.    

The blackout coincided with another anniversary: just two months earlier, the leaders of Ukraine’s Crimean Tatar community had begun a commercial blockade of the peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in March 2014. Despite promises from both the Ukrainian government and Tatar leaders to fix the damaged pylons, the blockade’s participants have prevented repair crews from doing their job. On November 21, scuffles between protesters and the Ukrainian National Guard broke out. 

Thanks to the blackout, the blockade’s organizers, which also include Ukrainian “patriotic” groups such as AutoMaidan, the nationalist Right Sector and the far-right Azov battalion, have managed, at least for the time being, to propel their initiative into both the national and international spotlight.  

But what are these groups’ actual goals?

Formally, Crimean Tatar activists have outlined five specific demands in connection with the blockade. They have called on Russian authorities to release Ukrainian political prisoners, including helicopter pilot Nadya Savchenko and to remove restrictions on media freedoms in Crimea. Yet from the very beginning, their real target was Kyiv. Specifically, they are pressuring Ukrainian officials to scuttle the free economic zone that entered into force in September 2014, allowing Ukrainian businesses to keep doing business with Crimea. Mustafa Dzhemilev, the legendary human rights activist and Tatar community leader, has talked publicly about ending the “mutually advantageous collaboration” between “the occupation regime and Ukrainian oligarchs.” The current head of Ukraine’s Crimean Tatar representative assembly, Refat Chubarov, has publicly called for blocking energy supplies to Crimea. 

On Monday, Ukranian President Poroshenko responded by tacitly endorsing the protesters’ demands and announcing an official blockade. In the process, Poroshenko conveniently overrode assertions that any blockade by non-state actors such as human rights activists was illegal. The timing is also important: Kyiv has grown increasingly impatient with what it sees as the Normandy group pushes for more concessions from Kyiv regarding the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Poroshenko’s new stance on the blockade is a signal that he will not bend over backwards to make more concessions, even when it pleases Germany. 

Yet the destruction of the pylons may boomerang, bringing longer-term consequences for Ukraine. Four local power plants, including two nuclear ones, have already had to scale back production because they had no means of distributing their electricity. The electricity grids of Ukraine and Russia are interconnected, and Ukraine depends on electricity supplies from Russia as well as coal supplies. Russia`s Inter RAO and Ukraine`s Ukrenergo signed a new contract when it was Ukraine in need of electricity supplies from Russia. So now, even as Ukraine makes the embargo of Crimea a part of official policy, it’s conceivable that cutting off Crimea’s electricity could prove counter-productive and painful for the mainland. As of this writing, Tatars activists are signaling that they may agree to restore one of the four pylons. 

Russia is already talking about retaliation with the focus on cutting gas or coal supplies to Ukraine. Gas threats do not scare Kyiv much at the moment as it is better prepared for winter than a year ago. Ukraine has 10 percent more gas in storage than it had at this time last year. The winter has been mild so far, and the country is able to meet a growing percentage of its gas import needs through reverse flow. Even though coal reserves are up nearly 40 percent from last year, they are still 40 percent short of what Ukraine needs, which could result in blackouts, especially since the country’s chief supplier halted deliveries from the Donbas on November 20. 

Moreover, as observers of Ukraine know well, the Ukrainian leadership will need to take into account a number of behind-the-scenes special interests, many of them competing, as it navigates the current standoff. Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, for one, may be attempting to use the situation as an opportunity to oust Energy Minister Volodymyr Demchyshyn, a Poroshenko loyalist. And Russian-born billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin is still believed to control Ukrenergo, despite recent purges in the company.  

Such non-transparent dealings with the Kremlin are precisely what Crimean Tatar leaders are most exercised about. After about 20,000 Crimean Tatars were forced to leave the peninsula over the past two years, many of them literally have nothing to lose. And by joining forces with Ukrainian nationalist groups, they are showing much more determination toward addressing the Crimea situation than Kyiv has.  

Crucially, the destruction of the pylons – as well as Poroshenko’s ambivalent response up to now – is a reminder that the leadership is essentially stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to dealing with Ukraine’s activist community. That may foster efforts to look for an easy way out. Two years after the Maidan, oligarchs still operate largely with impunity, the justice system remains a farce, and the pace of reforms is painfully slow. Living standards have fallen sharply. A sustainable economic recovery is a distant proposition, at best. Not surprisingly, many Ukrainian officials rely on bashing Russia as a distraction from their own failings. 

Where Crimea is concerned, civic activists claim that Kyiv has betrayed its own promises as well as the constitution. The overall effect is that some members of the public feel increasingly justified in turning to violent forms of civil disobedience. Yet violent actions will further alienate Ukraine European backers.    
While Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has promised to bring those responsible for the blackout to justice, this is likely to be yet another exercise in empty rhetoric. Kyiv seems to view the Crimea blockade as a pressure release valve - a way to allow agitated nationalists to blow off steam without sacrificing its own power. As such, the blockade is vastly preferable to some of the alternatives – namely allowing nationalists to vent their grievances in the Donbas, which would invite reprisals from Russia and the EU alike. 
As thousands of frustrated activists return home from the eastern front with scant employment opportunities and extensive military expertise, the risk of further radical protests may be growing. Time may be running out for Kyiv to deliver on the promises of the Maidan, and for the West to start holding it accountable for these promises. 

  • Balázs Jarábik