A crisis is brewing in Ukraine. Unlike most previous escalations in the region over the past two years, this crisis is not a military battle over territory but rather a different kind clash between Moscow and Kiev.
The exchange in hostility between the two countries began on Nov. 20, when unidentified individuals damaged two of four electricity transmission towers in the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, near Russian-controlled Crimea. The following day, more transmission towers were blown up, leading to a power outage in Crimea and a state of emergency declaration by the Crimean Emergencies Ministry. As Crimea was plunged into darkness, repair work on the Kherson side was delayed, when Ukrainian protesters attempted to prevent crews from reaching the site.
As the power outages in Crimea continued, Ukraine’s government made a decision on Nov. 23 to ban the delivery of goods to Crimea. At the same time, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned his country would retaliate over Russian plans to ban Ukrainian food imports starting on Jan. 1. Furthermore, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak announced on Nov. 24 that Moscow would cut gas supplies to Ukraine that day or the next, and might also cease coal supplies. Today, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers responded by imposing a ban on transit flights in Ukrainian airspace for Russian airlines.
These retaliatory moves vary in their significance. Delayed repairs to the electricity infrastructure in Kherson region had a direct impact on households throughout Crimea, with emergency services and Russian military bases forced to rely on generators.
While Ukraine does not need Russian natural gas supplies in order to meet demand for the rest of this year, disruptions to coal supplies could create shortages and power cuts throughout Ukraine. Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether a ban on coal supplies has been implemented. Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on Nov. 25 that customs officials have stopped coal shipments to Ukrainian customers, while Russian officials have denied that a final decision on a ban has been made.
A flight ban had already been in place since late October on direct Russian flights to Ukraine, but the latest decision halting Russian air traffic over Ukraine means that Russian airlines flying to European destinations must divert their paths, forcing them to take longer routes.
Ukrainian and Russian decision-makers are implementing these new measures just as the U.S., France and other Western governments engage in negotiations with Russia over the future of Syria and the fight against Islamic State, which could involve intelligence sharing. The situation is escalating just as a parallel crisis has erupted along the Syria-Turkey border, where Turkish jets shot down a Russian military jet on Nov. 24, potentially undermining efforts for increased cooperation between Russia and NATO on Syria. Ukraine and Russia have long used trade and energy to shape negotiations over the fate of Ukraine, but the sudden heightened tension this week indicates that we are entering a new phase of the crisis between Ukraine and Russia. The fallout from terror attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey in Syria have already begun to blur the lines between war in the Middle East and Europe’s crisis. Renewed hostility in Ukraine, besides complicating relations between the West and Russia, would further blur this distinction, as Eurasia’s discrete crises are becoming intrinsically linked.