Ukraine may wake to find Zelensky has capitulated to Russia on water to Crimea
On 5 March, Ukraine’s newly appointed Prime Minister Denis Shmyhal became the latest prominent politician in Ukraine to suggest that water supplies be reinstated to occupied Crimea, He was quick to backtrack after his words elicited outrage, just as had two other prominent MPs from the same ruling ‘Servant of the People’ party. The fact that at least four politicians from the majority party linked with President Volodymyr Zelensky have all put forward such proposals suggests that the aim is both to test public reaction and to manipulate it.
One of the forms of manipulation is through claiming a humanitarian crisis that does not, in fact, exist. Crimea certainly has always depended on mainland Ukraine for around 85% of its water supplies, and these supplies were cut in April 2014, following Russia’s invasion and annexation. This is still not equivalent to total dependence, and according to well-known Crimean Tatar leader, Nariman Dzhelyal, there is enough drinking water in Crimea, as well as water to wash with. It suits Russia, as well as those in Ukraine who want to get water supplies reinstated, to exaggerate the urgency of the situation and make it a humanitarian crisis. Dzhelyal is adamant that the situation is not catastrophic and that it is only Russia which stands to gain if Ukraine begins providing water again. Dzhelyal says that he had to tell Ukrainian MPs that it is Russia that bears responsibility and to stress that if they want to help Crimea, they need to remove the real reason for the problems which is, of course, Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
Dzhelyal points out that there is considerable disillusionment with what Russian occupation has brought to Crimea and that Ukraine should be capitalizing on this, rather than proposing to help resolve Russia’s problems. He says that he does not understand why the question of water supplies is being raised now at all.
Since Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President and his Servant of the People party gained an absolute majority in early elections, the question has been raised a worrying number of times.
In early July 2019, Zelensky’s advisor on economic matters, Danylo Hetmantsev stated that in his view cutting water off from Crimea “harms our citizens”. In October 2019, Yuri Aristov, Servant of the People MP and head of the parliamentary budget committee, asserted that there was nothing wrong with selling water to Crimea and that this would help supplement Ukraine’s finances. In early February 2020, MP David Arakhamia publicly suggested that water supplies could be reinstated in exchange for an agreement on Donbas. He apologised after a wave of indignation.
On 5 March, during the TV show ‘Right to Power’. Shmyhal expressed the view that water needed to be provided to Crimea because Ukrainians live there. Well-known Crimean journalist Valentina Samar writes that she listened to Shmyhal’s words several times and is inclined to think that, in saying “we will not cut off water for Ukrainians”, that the new PM was not aware that water supplies were stopped in April 2014, almost immediately after Russia’s invasion and annexation of the peninsula. He said that not providing water would lead to a humanitarian crisis.
Even if he did know that the water was not now flowing, he demonstrated shocking ignorance about international law when he claimed that “the occupier cannot bear responsibility for the Ukrainians living there.”
According to the Geneva Convention, it is precisely Russia, as occupying state, that bears full responsibility for all that happens on occupied territory.
As mentioned, Shmyhal’s words were widely reported in the media and elicited accusations of treason and betrayal. Refat Chubarov, head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, called it “an underhand stab in the back of all those who have not accepted occupation”. Well-known journalist Yuri Butusov wrote that if the President, government and Verkhovna Rada did not immediately refute Shmyhal’s “shameful statement” and if the SBU didn’t initiate a criminal investigation, this would mean that the Ukrainian authorities were wiling to hand over Ukraine’s state interests to the Russian Federation.
Shmyhal did backtrack on Facebook, claiming that he had merely wanted to express the government’s concern about all Ukrainians living in occupied Crimea, but since you can’t separate water supplies between those going to individuals, and those helping Russia’s military bases, this is not possible. There has never been a categorical rejection of such plans from Zelensky, which only compounds the fear that all of this is planned policy to test the ground. Or to prepare for capitulation on the subject of water to Crimea which Butusov believes, citing unnamed sources, was a condition put by Putin during the negotiations in Paris during the December Normandy Summit and, later, by telephone.
A condition for what? Russia and the militants it controls have thus far failed to honour any agreements made. Even if we were to consider such bargaining acceptable, what would be the value if the Russian side of the ‘deal’ would last no longer than the time it took to get the water flowing again?
Zelensky has already made some extremely contentious decisions to achieve the two exchanges of prisoners and at present all kinds of upbeat assurances are being made about a new and large exchange of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners. Nikolai Polozov, one of the lawyers who has represented Ukrainian political prisoners, points out that there is absolutely no transparency about the negotiations underway, and we could wake up to find out that water supplies to Crimea have been reinstated as part of the exchange agreement.
Since March 2014, Russia has imprisoned a huge number of Ukrainians. The majority are Crimean Tatars who have either been sentenced to or are facing huge terms of imprisonment for their faith and their civic activism. It is just as easy to manipulate public opinion on this subject as by appealing to a humanitarian crisis affecting fellow Ukrainians. How do you tell the parents, wives and children of political prisoners that the price of the men’s freedom is too high?
This ploy has already been used twice, and Polozov is doubtless right in warning of such a risk now. It is, however, manipulation that should be resisted. The Kremlin essentially never gives up all of its hostages, and even if it were to release every single political prisoner, the arrests would begin immediately. This is one of the reasons why it seems very likely that most of the political prisoners, who are suffering for their courage and civic position, would themselves reject such a deal. Not one of the political prisoners freed in exchanges has been able to return to occupied Crimea, and any now released will also end up, with their families, effectively deported from Crimea. In the meantime, other Crimean Tatars, other Ukrainians with a civic stand, will be taken prisoner and face the same massive prison sentences. This is not speculation. Since the last exchange of political prisoners in early September 2019, Russia has already seized at least five Ukrainians. There will be no let-up in the repression until Russia is forced to relinquish Crimea.
It is certainly clear that Russia needs an agreement with Ukraine since it is simply not capable of providing the territory it illegally annexed with the water it needs for its military expansion, as well as for agriculture and industry. In fact, Dzhelyal believes that the main requirements that the peninsula cannot cope with are from the military infrastructure being built, as well as the Russians being illegally settled on occupied territory.
Ukraine will be only helping the aggressor state and betraying its own interests and those of the people in Crimea who are suffering under occupation if it succumbs to blackmail and pressure. Ask any of those in Crimea who have throughout supported Ukraine and they will provide a categorical answer, Dzhelyal says, which is that some prices are too high. It is their voices that should be heeded.