Moscow has announced it will begin drilling for fresh water under the Sea of Azov this summer to address growing water shortages in occupied Crimea, a project President Vladimir Putin called for, with surprisingly limited fanfare, at the end of last year (Aif.ru, May 4, 2021; Znak.com, December 18, 2020). But this effort has little to do with helping Crimea—indeed, it may end by doing nothing for the people on that Ukrainian peninsula, experts say (Sprotyv.info, May 10; Ukraina24, May 8). Rather, the initiative seeks to further the Kremlin’s geopolitical claims on both the Sea of Azov and Crimea itself as well as help gain international sympathy for its demands that Ukraine restore the water flows that had gone to the peninsula before 2014. And in the most extreme case, the offshore drilling project might even indirectly lay the groundwork for a possible Russian military move into southeastern Ukraine to gain control of that water supply (see EDM, May 21, 2020).
The Crimean Peninsula has suffered increasingly serious water shortages ever since Russia illegally occupied and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and Kyiv stopped the flow of water from mainland Ukraine that, until then had made up for local deficiencies. Reservoirs and wells on the peninsula have been drying up since 2014 (Sprotyv.info, April 2, 2021), and this situation has deteriorated recently both because of an unprecedentedly severe drought and because Moscow has urged Russians to travel to the region given that they are unable to go abroad because of the pandemic (Svobotnaya Pressa, May 7, 2021; see EDM, August 12, 2020). Indeed, this combination, Russian commentator Andrei Illarionov argued last month, is rapidly becoming the biggest challenge Moscow faces on the seized territory (Gordonua.com, April 14).
Still, Moscow has been extremely reluctant to address the problem of water in Crimea because the issue emphasizes what Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev recognized in the 1950s and that Ukrainians and their supporters are convinced of to this day: Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine and not of the Russian Federation. Any discussion of the water issue implicitly undermines Moscow’s claims, and so the Kremlin and its allies have avoided them, even preventing the kind of hydrological studies on the peninsula that might have allowed the Russian authorities to address the problem more effectively. Instead, Moscow officials have played down the crisis while condemning Kyiv for not providing water to what Russia insists are Russian citizens (Krymr.com, February 7).
Fresh water does, in fact, exist under the Sea of Azov, experts claim; but it is highly mineralized and not likely to be potable. And it is far from the only or the best way to address the peninsula’s water shortage. Moscow’s decision to drill wells to try to pump this resource up from the seabed, while theoretically possible, has been denounced by some Russian observers as “the most idiotic means” imaginable to address the problem (Forum.msk.ru, May 5). If the Russian authorities were really interested in addressing the mounting water shortage in the occupied territory, they could drill deeper wells (the kind Russia has been using elsewhere) in Crimea itself, build water-purification facilities that could desalinize water from the Black Sea, or extend a pipeline from Russia’s Kuban in the North Caucasus across the Kerch Strait. But despite each of those options’ greater practicality than the Sea of Azov drilling plan, all of them have their own drawbacks. And they tend to be more political than anything else. Drilling deeper land wells is, at best, a short-term solution; desalinization projects would likely require expensive new power stations, possibly nuclear, to operate; and a pipeline from the Kuban to Crimea would be extremely costly as well and could be disrupted in the event of a new outburst of violence (Vtimes.io, April 1; Apostrophe.ua, March 8; RIA Novosti, February 2).
But lying behind these problems are others. Southeastern Ukraine and southern Russia are suffering increasingly serious water shortages of their own (see EDM, June 2, 2020, October 22, 2020, February 23, 2021). Consequently, Kyiv almost certainly will never agree to restore the water supplies to Crimea that it provided before 2014 unless or until Russia returns Crimea to Ukraine. To do otherwise would be to harm Ukrainian citizens living on the territory it still controls and even provide a new opening for Russian mobilization there. At the same time, Moscow would face resistance from people in the Russian regions adjoining the North Caucasus were it to try to take water from there and ship it to Crimea. Those regions already are suffering economically, and taking water away from them would threaten their economies and also the critically important Volga–Don Canal, which Russia uses not only to move ships from the Caspian Sea to areas adjoining Ukraine but also to carry bulk cargos within the country and for export (Apostrophe.ua, December 25, 2020; Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 24, 2019).
Consequently, there is every reason to believe that Moscow’s announcement that it will drill for fresh water under the Sea of Azov—a gigantic, Soviet-style project of the kind Putin apparently favors—has little or nothing to do with helping the Crimean people overcome the disasters that Russian occupation has only exacerbated and that, like other such projects, will never be completed (Znak.com, December 18, 2020). Moreover, this announcement will likely become the occasion for Moscow to put even more pressure on Kyiv directly and through Ukraine’s international partners. Indeed, in recent commentaries, even Russian observers admit as much (Svobotnaya Pressa, May 8, 2021).
The drilling of wells in the Sea of Azov will serve to reinforce Moscow’s claims in the minds of some that this body of water is a Russian lake rather than an international waterway—despite the existence of several large Ukrainian ports there and despite the agreements Moscow signed with Kyiv two decades ago specifying something exactly opposite to what the Russian authorities are now claiming. But additionally, it will allow Moscow to raise the issue of water in a way that will be politically useful for Russia in its drive to force Ukraine to make concessions without having to acknowledge the obvious: Crimea’s water shortages have happened only because of the Russian occupation, again underscoring that the peninsula is a natural part of Ukraine rather than Russia.