- Water insecurity runs rampant in Crimea as it hurts the Russian economy in times of need.
- Putin announces he will drill for fresh water under the Azov Sea, which is historically Russian and Ukrainian.
- Russian annexation of the Azov Sea could mean another hit to Ukrainian economy and a historical win for Putin.
Why is Putin’s level Hot?
Answer: He’s been testing the waters for some time, and they are just right.
In mid-December 2020 Vladimir Putin pledged to solve the recent Crimean water shortage and announced a budget for it of 50 billion roubles – over 650 million US dollars. By March 2021, Putin’s solutions to the crisis were to dig wells as well as to build dams and desalination plants. However, that month Putin announced that the drilling for the first wells at the bottom of the Azov Sea would begin in the spring. Russian Deputy Prime Minister told reporters “We are exploring at full speed, we drilled on the spit, we found water… I think that in July we will start drilling wells,”
On March 1st, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs stated that “Ukraine [would] not supply water to Crimea until it returns to Ukraine”. This comment was in reference to the closing off by Kyiv of the North Crimean Canal in 2014 as result of the annexation of Crimea. This decision cut off 85% of Crimea´s water supply, mostly used for agriculture and for granting the general population potable water. By now, the lack of water has stalled tourism, developments, diverted investments and other sectors. It was originally a tactic to delay Russian developments from easily settling in Crimea, but it was also a way to say: if this territory were Russian, its waters would be too.
The water that Putin wants to drill is labeled technical water, given that it is not potable and can’t even be utilized for cleaning or washing food. Because of this, the move has been described as “the most idiotic way” to solve the problem, as Crimea posseses no way to treat the water and the Azov Sea is not the peninsula’s only source of technical water. If the move is neither necessary nor the most efficient solution, it is clear that Putin’s control over the Azov Sea is not about Crimea’s water crisis, but about Russia’s territory.
Throughout April the world watched as more than 100,000 Russian troops accumulated on the Ukranian border for unclear reasons, only to watch the Kremlin withdraw. However, while we paid attention to the troops, Putin also increased naval presence in the Azov Sea and announced a temporary restriction of movement for foreign warships, which goes against the 2003 Treaty Between the Russian Federation and Ukraine on Cooperation in the Use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. Nevertheless, Putin faced no real repercussions from the international community.
These were by no means isolated incidents. In early 2018 Putin inaugurated a 12 mile bridge connecting Russia to Crimea over the Kerch strait, further consolidating Russian presence over the peninsula. The bridge also granted Putin the ability to control passage through the strait, and reduced ships from a maximum length of 250–205 m as ports vary, to no more than 160 meters long, 31 m wide and 33 m tall.
The Ukranian ports on the Azov Sea are an economic lifeline for the country; the areas around these ports are the most industrialized of Ukraine and handle large amounts of cargo. The construction of the bridge alone reduced as much as 43% of the cargo without taking into account deliberate Russian intervention of the passage.
The most recent victory for Putin happened later in 2018, when Russian ships attacked Ukranian vessels passing through the Kerch strait into the Azov Sea —internal waters of both countries. The attack violated international maritime law and their treaty. The response from the West was underwhelming, which for Putin signified yet another heated victory in the Azov Sea.
Who is changing Putin’s temperature?
Answer: The lack of water in Crimea and Ukraine’s new agenda.
Crimea needs more money to face this crisis, but that may come at the expense of Russians in the mainland. In October last year, the Russian government approved a 50 billion ruble budget to solve the water crisis, in addition to the 1.5 trillion roubles it has spent over the past 7 years. This shows that the Ukranian blockade of the North Crimean Canal has been quite effective at inconveniencing the Russians in an indirect manner. Nonetheless, the effects of the water shortage are only starting to show the burden that water depletion can have on the Russian economy, from agricultural losses to diverting tourism and investments.
Fortunately for Putin, the same drought that Crimea suffers is happening in the south of Ukraine, so they would not be able to open the Crimean canal even if they wanted to. While Zelenski scrambles to deal with the consequences of a dry winter and low reservoir levels, the prospect of providing water to Crimea is farther than ever before. This gives Putin more time to find sources of freshwater and come out on top without having to share Russian water in times of drought, which would be a physical manifestation of the toll Crimea is taking on the country.
Angered by Zelenski’s plans to launch the Crimean Platform initiative in August 2021 —as a means of returning the Russian occupation of Crimea to the international agenda— Putin wants to act fast. After August, sanctions may increase, but if Putin manages to provide the Crimean peninsula with water from the Azov Sea, he may have more leverage when it comes to discussing Crimea and its exclusive maritime economic zone. If solved, Putin may use water dependency to solidify the ties between Russia and the annexed peninsula while undermining the most effective tactic Ukraine had to hurt Putin.
What is driving Putin?
Answer: His desire to justify billions of dollars in investments and solidifying his claim over Crimea.
In 2014 the annexation of Crimea boosted Putin’s domestic popularity to record levels and the number increased again after the EU and US sanctions. As of 2019 an overwhelming majority of Russians still support the annexation of Crimea but it is unlikely that Russians will continue to support it if it happens at the expense of their tax money. As of 2019, Russia had already spent roughly 23 billion US dollars on the peninsula.
Putin continues to subsidise the region, in addition to the construction of grandiose infrastructure projects like the Kerch bridge and the Tavrida highway. While these were permissible expenses in times of economic stability, subsidizing almost 70% of a region’s budget does not seem sound in times of economic uncertainty.
Even the parliament of the republic is wary of such numbers, especially as the investments in Crimea were supposed to bring economic bonanza that did not manifest due to the pandemic and the sanctions. In addition to this, Crimea’s water problems have reduced its agricultural sector from almost 140,000 hectares of arable land to only 17.000, and while the Kremlin assures tourists will be spared from water scarcity, numbers show the sector is having trouble recuperating.
Drilling under the sea is not the sole nor the most efficient way to access water for the peninsula, but this move has little to do with the Crimean population. Drilling deeper wells, creating desalination plants and building dams were the most likely solutions until recently. Drilling under the Azov Sea to access its reserves of freshwater may not provide the peninsula with the water it needs, in quantity or quality, but it could have significant geopolitical implications.
Outside of Russia and Ukraine, Russian control of Crimea and the Azov Sea grants Putin a strategic position. A stable Crimea allows for easier and faster deployment of the Black Sea Fleet, which has been slowly updated from the remnants of the Soviet fleet it once was. It has been deployed to places like Syria and has provided transport suppliers with key necessary ports like Sevastopol.
Control over the Azov Sea grants Putin a direct line from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and secures the ability of Russian naval forces to move freely between two bodies of water through the Volga-Don Canal —one of the most important riparian connections for Russia and one of its two accesses to the Caspian Sea. This would not only facilitate surveillance of these waters, but it would allow the Russian naval forces to mobilize and regroup wherever needed and without external scrutiny.
What does this mean for you?
Answer: Drilling for water under the Azov Sea will mean different things depending on whether Putin can provide water for Crimea or not.
If he fails, it will be seen as an illogical way to try to conquer territory for the Russian Federation. With both Ukraine and Russia going through severe droughts, water will not play a decisive role in the Crimean dispute, but the Crimean Platform Initiative and its increase in sanctions may spark an organized military operation for Putin to secure the land as he runs out of diplomatic options.
With Crimea back on the international agenda, we will see Zelenski fight back for its Exclusive Economic Maritime Zone, and Crimea’s sovereignty will be on the line once again. The Ukrainian ports surrounding Crimea handle almost two-thirds of the country’s trade with the outside world, so the annexation of a body of water as large as the Azov Sea will cause turmoil regardless of who gets Crimea.
However, if Putin manages to supply Crimea with water, it will mean a decisive victory for Putin, yet another loss for Ukraine’s claim over the disputed peninsula, and, most importantly, it will set a precedent for the coming years.
Water disputes are an undeniably growing trend. Fresh water is a scarce resource and guaranteeing abundance is difficult for an ever growing number of countries and peoples. Putin’s ability to provide water will not only put an end to Ukraine’s non-violent tactics to keep Putin out, but it will also end the narrative that if Crimea were Russian it would have Russian water.
Russian water in Crimea would mean agriculture, manufacturing and tourism are back in business, and Crimea could stop being the burden Russian taxpayers are increasingly complaining about. With 1.5 trillion rubles in investments and a recovering economy, the return of water for the Crimean peninsula would be a stabilizing factor for the Russian Federation and for Putin’s position.
Outside of Russia and Ukraine, this means a stronger Russia for its own sake and the sake of every other nation, enemy or friend, so long as it can be reached by water. It also means that Turkish control over the Black Sea is a thing of the past, and that the Mediterranean may be next. As Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the Azov Sea treaty prohibits third-party vessels without consent from both countries, the Azov Sea is out of NATO jurisdiction; thus, the Black Sea may also become the next destination for the organization if they wish to keep Russia at bay.