Water factor remains one of Ukraine’s few leverages on the situation in Crimea. Russia has made much efforts to decrease the costs for Crimea’s maintenance, but has not managed to resolve the problem of water supplies on the annexed peninsula. The aggravation of water shortage in Crimea is pushing Russia to dialogue with Ukraine on the resumption of water supplies to the occupied peninsula. In exchange for restored water supplies via the North-Crimean Canal, Russia may suspend detentions of Ukrainian vessels passing through the Kerch Strait, release Crimean Tatars or make concessions on Donbas. Meanwhile, the resumption of water supplies to Crimea would be Ukraine’s strategic defeat which would be regarded as a step towards legitimization of Crimea’s annexation.
Water factor remains one of Ukraine’s few leverages on the situation in Crimea. Before 2014, up to 85% of water needs in Crimea had been ensured from mainland Ukraine via the North-Crimean Canal. After Crimea’s annexation, Ukraine suspended water supplies, maintaining a position that their resumption is possible only after de-occupation of the peninsula.
Ukraine’s policy has been based on the idea to make Crimea’s maintenance at most unprofitable for Russia in many aspects – economic, energy, infrastructural, legal, image etc. Suspension of water and electricity supplies and transport connection were among Ukraine’s practical steps in this direction.
However, Russia has made much efforts to decrease costs caused by Crimea’s occupation. Contrary to Ukraine’s position and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, Russian occupational authorities opened a bridge across the Kerch Strait for automobiles in May 2018 and railway in December 2019. Russia also launched electricity supplies to the occupied Crimea from the Taman Peninsula. Moreover, Russia is exploiting natural gas and oil on the Crimean continental shelf, having actually deprived Ukraine of its sovereign rights as coastal state.
Nevertheless, Russia has not managed to resolve the problem of water supplies in Crimea. Russian occupational authorities try to exploit groundwater and upland water resources, but these measures do not eliminate the deficiency of freshwater. If Yalta may be supplied with water from artesian boreholes, the majority of other large cities were mostly dependent on water from the North-Crimean Canal. In February 2020, representatives of the Simferopol occupational authorities claimed that the city has drinking water for a maximum of 100 days and are planning to introduce an hourly schedule of hot and cold water supply.
According to various calculations, freshwater reserves in Crimea may be enough only to cover household needs. However, the Crimean industry suffers from a scarcity of freshwater. In addition, droughts have resulted in agricultural decline in northern Crimea. Crimea’s rapid militarization also contributes to the depletion of water resources on the peninsula.
Recently, the issue of water supplies to Crimea have become a subject of domestic political tensions in Ukraine. In January 2020, head of the parliamentary budget committee Yuriy Aristov admitted that an idea to resume water supplies to Crimea had been discussed in the budget formation. Later, Chairperson of the “Sluha Narodu” faction David Arakhamia said that he would agree on the resumption of water supplies to Crimea in exchange for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Donbas and Ukraine’s restoration of border control. In response, leaders of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People and civil society blamed the ruling party for intentions to exchange Crimea for Donbas or sell Crimean Tatars for water.
The aggravation of water security in Crimea is pushing Russia to dialogue with Ukraine on the resumption of water supplies to the annexed peninsula. The Kremlin repeatedly claimed that Russia is ready to agree with Ukraine on water supplies on a commercial basis. In exchange for restored water supplies via the North-Crimean Canal, Russia may suspend detentions of Ukrainian vessels passing through the Kerch Strait, release Crimean Tatars or make concessions on Donbas (new exchange of detainees, reduction of military activities by pro-Russian militants etc.). Moreover, Russia would use a deal with Ukraine on water supplies to legitimize the annexation of the peninsula by the international community.
In turn, the resumption of water supplies to Crimea would be Ukraine’s strategic defeat. In exchange for financial revenues and Russia’s tactical concessions, Ukraine would lose the most efficient leverage on the situation in Crimea. Restored water supplies would significantly ease a burden on Russia caused by Crimea’s occupation and militarization. Finally, the international community would regard a deal on water supplies between Kyiv and occupational authorities as a step towards legitimizing the annexation of the Ukrainian territory.