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Russia, Ukraine Downplay Energy Standoff

Nov. 30, 2015 After power was cut off in Russian-controlled Crimea, the Kremlin suspended coal shipments to Ukraine, but both countries have downplayed the dispute.

Briefing

|December 17, 2015

An energy crisis is growing in Ukraine and Russian-controlled Crimea, but both sides are suspiciously nonchalant. Much of Crimea lacks electricity, as a power cut enters its second week. Meanwhile, following the suspension of coal shipments from Russia and rebel-controlled territories, Ukraine only has enough coal to meet energy demand for 45-50 days, raising the specter of shortages during the winter. Ukraine generally imports anthracite coal, found in eastern Ukraine and countries such as Russia, South Africa and Australia. If this supply does not come from Russia, therefore, new shipments will take weeks to arrive, while Ukraine’s limited port infrastructure cannot accommodate the amount of coal-laden vessels needed to fully meet demand.

Ukraine’s energy minister has declared that once one of the four power lines running to Crimea begins functioning again, coal shipments to Ukraine will resume, but he provided no details as to why he is confident Moscow would restore coal supplies. He also failed to address when the Ukrainian government — which has been stalling on the matter — will resume at least some of the electricity flow to the Russian-controlled peninsula. Despite energy shortages and combative rhetoric, the situation along the contact line in eastern Ukraine, where both sides exchange fire to varying degrees each day, has been quiet, with relatively few ceasefire violations over the past day.

The Kremlin’s overall reaction to the Crimean blackout has been subdued: an energy cutoff to Crimea got a reciprocal reaction – an energy cutoff to Ukraine – but nothing more. Russia, therefore, is attempting to minimize this crisis. The reasoning behind the Kremlin’s caution is its ongoing negotiation with the U.S. regarding the interlocking issues of Syria and Ukraine. Today, President Barack Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the future of the Syrian regime, the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish military, the fight against the Islamic State and the status of Ukraine.

For Russia, all of these matters are intertwined, but Ukraine — a buffer zone critical for Russia’s security strategy – takes precedence. However, in order to win concessions on Ukraine, the Kremlin needs to both carve out a major role in the Syrian conflict and be in a position to offer the U.S. assistance — and concessions — in the Middle East theater, which is the U.S.’s priority. A renewed crisis in Ukraine at this moment, therefore, does not suit the Kremlin. Russia is striving to boost its position in preparation for negotiations over Ukraine and will thus avoid an escalation in tensions in Ukraine in the near term.