Russia-Ukraine Water War?

The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 has been widely condemned internationally and rejected by successive Ukrainian presidential administrations as illegal. For its part, Russia has insisted that Crimea will remain part of Russia in perpetuity. Save for a few naval incidents, this standoff over Crimea has been without direct military conflict, unlike the situation in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian troops. But the Crimean dispute still remains tense and increasingly threatens to spill over into armed conflict over the issue of water. The decision by the Ukrainian government to cut off water supplies to Crimea in 2014 has forced Russia to spend billions of dollars on alternative supplies, but these have turned out to be inadequate. Russia is faced with the reality that Crimea is rapidly running out of water, and without some diplomatic solution, the only way to fully rectify this situation is through force of arms. Such an escalation could also again threaten the transit of Russian gas across Ukraine to Europe, which was extended for another five years in March.

One of the most visible examples of Russia’s commitment to the development of Crimea is the Crimean Bridge project, which provides a physical link from the Russian mainland for both vehicle and rail traffic. Construction began in 2016, and by 2018 the vehicle bridge was opened, with passenger cars crossing in May and trucks in October. Passenger trains began using the bridge in December 2019, with freight trains cleared to make the crossing in June 2020. The bridge is a feat of modern engineering some 19 kilometers long, making it one of the longest bridges in Europe, at a cost of $3.6 billion. It has become the primary mode of travel to and from Crimea, helping boost the economy, which is heavily dependent upon tourism.

A less visible aspect of Russia’s commitment to Crimea is the construction of military facilities needed for an influx of Russian troops, up from some 14,000 in March 2014 to over 31,500 today. By more than doubling the Crimean garrison, Russia has made it all but impossible for Ukraine to regain control of the peninsula through military force. However, these new troops, plus their families, and the influx of tens of thousands of tourists, has exposed the weak underbelly of Russia’s annexation of Crimea — water. The new water needs of the military, along with the water for thousands of additional tourists on a recurring basis, have severely strained the already diminished water resources of the peninsula. Ultimately, this situation raises the question of whether or not the Russian annexation of Crimea is sustainable.

Crimea’s Water Crisis

Due to the geography and climate of the peninsula, water has always been a problem. The original landscape of much of northern Crimea was dominated by semiarid salt flats and marshes, and rainfall is highly seasonal and scarce in some areas. Only after World War II, when the Soviet Union started to develop Crimea industrially, agriculturally and as a tourist destination, did the water situation improve. After Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, work began on construction of the North Crimean Canal, which was completed in 1975 and drew approximately 1.35 billion cubic meters of water yearly from the Dneiper River, supplying the Crimean peninsula with some 85% of its water.

Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, the Ukrainian government closed down the sluices on the Dneiper River that fed the North Crimean Canal, shutting the flow of water. The Ukrainians also built a dam at the stretch of canal that crosses the border between Crimea and Ukraine. The loss of water had an immediate deleterious impact, with the agriculture sector collapsing. While extensive subsidies from the Russian government, combined with large-scale drilling of wells for ground water, allowed the agricultural sector to rebound by 2016, the demand on the wells far exceeded their natural ability to recharge. Many have since run dry or been corrupted from salt water, forcing farmers to abandon their fields.

Major industrial enterprises were similarly hit by the canal’s closure. The giant Krimsky Titan plant, one of the largest producers of titanium oxide in Europe, was dependent upon the water from the North Crimean Canal to flood a 40 acre reservoir containing sulfuric acid, a byproduct of the production processes. This water diluted the acid, allowing it to dissipate gradually through evaporation. The lack of water led to a release of deadly sulfur dioxide gas in 2018, forcing evacuation of the nearby city of Armyansk. Russian authorities have since sought to re-establish the viability of the reservoir by filling it with well water. While alleviating the hazard at the Krimsky Titan plant, the use of well water there further exacerbates shortages for the population. This also hurts the vital tourist industry that the Crimean economy depends on.

Search for Solutions

Russia is in the process of considering several fixes to Crimea’s water problem. These include diverting water from the Kuban River to the southern portions of the North Crimean Canal, constructing desalinization plants, and conducting deep well digging to access newly discovered aquifers in the Crimean interior. All of these options are expensive, and none will, either in isolation or totality, resolve Crimea’s water crisis. The only way to restore Crimea to its full economic viability is to reconnect the North Crimean Canal to the Dneiper River.

Russia has long sought to purchase water from Ukraine, responding to the initial excuse offered by the Ukrainian government for closing the canal, which was based upon previous nonpayment of water bills prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ukraine, however, has refused, latching on the water of the North Crimea Canal as a weapon in its struggle with Russia over the return of Crimea. Russia spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year supplying water to Crimea, money that is not available for other purposes in Crimea. With a reliable water supply, the costs associated with the Russian annexation of Crimea would drop considerably.

But contrary to Ukraine’s hopes, Russia will not bend to this Ukrainian pressure. Even the Ukrainian military recognizes that if push came to shove, Russia would seek to open the North Crimean Canal by force of arms rather than surrender its position in Crimea. Recent statements by the head of the Ukrainian Navy indicate that this is a possibility that Ukraine has been preparing for. “We are preparing for a full-scale military confrontation,” Oleksiy Neizhpapa told Ukrainian media, “realizing that if this [i.e., a Russian attack to open up the canal] happens, then, alas, it will be a lot of losses — both our soldiers and the civilian population.”

Russian military action to forcibly open the North Crimea Canal would require a significant commitment of forces, and almost assuredly would be condemned by the US, Europe and Nato. It is this risk that restrains Russia. Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin has put out feelers to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, offering Russian concessions in the breakaway regions of Donbas and Lugansk, where Russian separatists, backed by the Russian military, have fought a seven-year war with Ukrainian authorities. While from a practical standpoint such a swap would make sense, politically it is a non-starter for Ukraine because opening the North Crimea Canal would all but assure Crimea remains under Russian control.

As the clock runs out on Russia’s ability to supply fresh water to the citizens and enterprises of Crimea, the prospects of large-scale fighting in eastern Ukraine increases. For both Russia and Ukraine, the issue of Crimea is a red line neither side is willing to cross — Russia will not return it, and Ukraine will not agree to sign it away. Under normal circumstances, this sort of waiting game could drag out for decades, if not longer. But given Crimea’s pressing need for life-providing water, time is running out for diplomacy. Void of any last-minute deal where Ukraine opens the North Crimea Canal voluntarily, there will be a sharp increase in the level of fighting in eastern Ukraine as Russia seeks to compel Ukraine to accept a deal. Ukraine’s Zelenskiy could soon be called upon to make the Hobson’s choice of either losing the Donbas and Lugansk regions to Russian separatists, or caving into Russian pressure and reopening the North Crimea Canal and thereby de facto recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

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