The Ukrainian Mystery

Dec. 3, 2015 After the sabotage of power lines caused an electricity shortage in Crimea, the Ukrainian government displayed a fairly casual attitude toward the matter, given that the shortage directly challenges Russia’s position in Crimea.

|December 3, 2015

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By George Friedman

The Ukrainian government announced today that the shortage of electricity in Crimea could result in an ecological crisis and has led to nuclear power plants reducing output. Electrical power was cut to Crimea when some unknown individuals destroyed the transmission towers from Ukraine that supplied Crimea with electricity. Interestingly, two pylons were destroyed on the first day, and then the others were destroyed the following day. Rumors floated that the attackers were right-wing Ukrainians, implicitly denying that the Ukrainian government had anything to do with the explosions. However, since two were destroyed first, the Ukrainian government had time to deploy security forces to protect the others. Either guards were deployed and failed to protect them, or the government failed to provide security. What is known is that all the lines went down and Crimea remains without sufficient electricity, posing a threat to chemical plants on the peninsula. Moreover, the sabotage of the electricity lines also impacted electricity in southern Ukraine and operations at two Ukrainian nuclear power plants: the South Ukraine plant and the Zaporizhia plant. As a result, nuclear energy output inside Ukraine was reduced by 500 MW.

The Ukrainian government’s ecological warnings would seem inappropriate, as the destruction of the lines at least in some small part was the responsibility of the Ukrainian government. The failure to fully repair those lines was clearly Ukraine’s responsibility. If there is an ecological crisis underway, then Ukraine obviously shares some responsibility. However, the release from the ministry did not speak of what Ukraine might be doing to restore electricity, and seemed to treat the electricity shortage as something not connected with Ukraine.

It is interesting that Ukraine would not aggressively prevent the destruction of the transmission towers, and would take a fairly casual attitude toward the matter, given that their destruction directly challenges Russia’s position in Crimea, which it had annexed early in the conflict with Ukraine. Given the relative power of Russia and its options, and the apparent desire of the United States and Germany to avoid a direct confrontation with the Russians, the Ukrainians would logically be expected to avoid even the appearance of a provocation of this magnitude. Yet, they haven’t. Whether or not the Ukrainian government had any role in the sabotage of the power lines, the Ukrainians have been fairly nonchalant, merely listing the consequences of the incident. The Ukrainians tend to be nervous when it comes to Russia. Their confident calm demeanor is striking.

But they may have good reason to be confident, since the Russians didn’t explode along with the towers. They spoke of cutting off coal deliveries to Ukraine, have cut off natural gas deliveries, and have warned that Russia will impose a non-preferential trade regime on Ukraine starting Jan. 1 if Kiev and the European Union do not provide concessions on a planned EU-Ukraine trade deal. On the whole, however, the Russians have been relatively conciliatory by downplaying the event and emphasizing that they don’t intend to initiate a crisis over it. After a show of anger, the Russians sought to calm down the dispute, promising a power bridge by the end of December. Over the past year or so, the Russians have created crises without provocation or with very little provocation. Now, the Russians seem to not have the stomach for one. This needs some consideration.

Ukraine has become a frozen conflict of sorts. Russia holds a portion of the east and Crimea. Kiev, with a pro-Western government, controls the rest of the country. Neither is satisfied with the status, but have little choice than to live with it. Russia does not have the military force at this point to conquer and occupy Ukraine. The Ukrainians would require substantial outside help to resist, help whose arrival is probable but not certain. What Russia wants is a neutral Ukraine without military ties to the West. What Ukraine wants is Russian withdrawal from Crimea and the east.

The Russians have sought neutralization by following an indirect route. Their intervention in Syria was intended not only to protect Bashar al-Assad but also to demonstrate their military power. They challenged the United States but at the same time helped the U.S. The U.S. did not want the Assad regime to fall at this point, as the vacuum might be filled with their main enemy, Islamic State. The U.S. didn’t want to defend Assad either and the Russians solved that problem by defending Assad. Public condemnation aside, the Obama Administration could live with this.

Russia wanted to set up a negotiation over Ukraine that might bring it closer to its goals, if not all the way. The U.S. has no appetite for a military confrontation in Ukraine. It is prepared to train and arm Ukraine, but its primary defensive line against Russia is further west, on the Polish-Romanian border. The Germans, the main power in Europe, have many more things on their plate than Ukraine and are happy with a frozen conflict or a neutralization but do not want another round of fighting.

The situation has left Ukraine and the Baltics particularly uneasy. They feel that American, German and NATO attention generally has been drawn away from Ukraine, which they see as the main geopolitical interest. The Baltic states issued a warning to Europe not to be distracted by the terrorism or immigration issue, and leave Ukraine open to exploitation by the Russians. The Poles and Romanians, we suspect, have a similar view.

The situation is frozen in two senses then. First, the West was preoccupied with other matters, and not in a position to be assertive — or even defensive – in Ukraine. The Russians calculated that if they allow Ukraine to cool while demonstrating their strategic capabilities, and simultaneously embarrassing and helping the Americans, attention would not only be drawn away from Ukraine, but the need to find some basis for collaboration in the Middle East might leave Ukraine a subsidiary bargaining point in the broader mix.

Therefore, the Russians were working to set up a negotiation that the Europeans wanted and the Americans were too distracted to resist. In that negotiation, a settlement such as agreeing on the military neutrality of Ukraine, while guaranteeing the survival of a pro-Western government might be a basis for a settlement. The east would be granted a degree of autonomy while remaining part of Ukraine, and some formula would be found returning Crimea to its status quo ante. The Russian fleet would remain in Sevastopol, guarded by significant forces while Ukraine regained nominal, if ineffective, sovereignty there. The Europeans would be happy with having sanctions cut, as would the Russians. The Americans would focus on defenses further west.

This is precisely the scenario that frightened Ukraine. In this scenario the government in Kiev would lack the force to resist a Russian breach if that were to happen, and the political and military environment of the Americans and Europeans might leave them at risk. Autonomy in the east and gestures on Ukraine might unravel Ukraine’s control over other areas. Therefore, the current frozen conflict, if allowed to go on, coupled with terrorism, the refugee crisis, and the Islamic State threat might move their conflict and interests to a marginal place.

Under this theory, the destruction of the power transmission lines to Ukraine — whether by Ukraine itself or by proxies — makes a great deal of sense. Ukraine’s national security required active involvement of its allies in the conflict, and the environment was pointing in the other direction, towards an accommodation with the Russians. Something had to be done, and creating a crisis with the Russians was not something that would appeal to the Ukrainians.

The Russians, however, saw the trap and refused the bait. They knew that if they overreacted to the electricity cutoff, it would potentially return Ukraine to the status it held before, as a major flashpoint. So, after an initial burst of anger, they quickly quieted down and refused to create a crisis. They were happy with anything that distracts from Ukraine, even though it is a strategic buffer Moscow cannot ignore.

There may be other explanations to what is going on, but this one is the most coherent to us. Russia wants an agreement and will ignore provocations. Ukraine is careful not to be too provocative as it does not want its allies to blame Ukraine for the situation. The direction, therefore, is to a settlement that Ukraine may not be able to live with. And that means Ukraine might be forced to find a means to generate attention toward its needs and fears. That is a dangerous path, as the Ukrainians know, so they will try modest steps, such as environmental reports. But those won’t be enough and Ukraine can’t take great risks.