As U.S. and European decision-makers negotiate with Russia over a roadmap for Syria and an approach against the Islamic State, the Ukrainian government is taking steps to undermine an emerging understanding between Washington and the Kremlin.
Over the weekend, power supply pylons were blown up in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, leading to Russian-controlled Crimea being disconnected from the electricity grid. Ukrainian nationalist activists, as well as Crimean Tatar activists, have attempted to prevent repair work to the power supply infrastructure. These activists are seeking a blockade of Crimea. While the authorities initially responded by attempting to remove activists from the site, the Ukrainian government on Nov. 23 announced it will seek to block the movement of goods into the Crimean Peninsula. In response, Russia declared on the following day that it would pursue a natural gas cutoff and potentially may also block the supply of coal into Ukraine. These moves and countermoves come as, following two months of relative quiet on the frontlines, ceasefire violations have increased in eastern Ukraine — particularly in the Donetsk area — since the beginning of November.
Ukraine has very few options when it comes to its large eastern neighbor. Nevertheless, Ukraine does control land access to the Crimean Peninsula. Moreover, the vast majority of the peninsula’s power supplies come from mainland Ukraine. Despite pressure from nationalist and Crimean Tatar activists, the government in Kiev has been reluctant to fully utilize its ability to isolate Russian-controlled Crimea, fearing Russian retribution and likely U.S. and European disapproval of moves that could spark counteraction from Moscow.
Indications of an emerging understanding between the U.S. and Russia, as well as increased interest from some NATO countries, France in particular, in cooperating with Russia in Syria, worried Ukraine’s leaders. Ukrainian decision-makers fear a U.S.-Russia pact, whether formal or informal, over the country’s future. Ukraine, however, is not the only country that fears this coordination in Syria is undermining its own security interests: The Baltic states announced on Nov. 20 that they would not participate in an anti-terror coalition that includes Russia. Turkey’s decision on Nov. 24 to shoot down a Russian fighter jet — just one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited one of the Syrian regime’s main sponsors, Iran— highlights that an increase in cooperation between Western countries and Russia in Syria also runs counter to the interests of the government in Ankara.
The U.S., as well as France, have an interest in cooperating with Russia against the Islamic State in Syria. They also, as a result, do not want to see the fall of Bashar al-Assad right now. There are now dual crises in Ukraine and along the Turkish-Syrian border, as well as concerns that some Western governments will begin prioritizing coordination with Russia and the battle against the Islamic State over the interests of regional partners.