Oleg Onopko
expert on Eastern Europe at Europe Insight

Self-withdrawal from Crimea?

Three versions of what termination of trade between Ukraine and Crimea means

Until recently, all of Ukraine’s hostile acts towards Crimea – from shutting off water and electricity supplies to a Mejlis-organised “blockade”– have been nothing more than symbolic attempts to intimidate Crimeans. They were implemented, though with the informal approval of the Kiev regime, only through the efforts of civil activists and paramilitary formations not under its control.

The present situation, where trade ties have been officially terminated, is the result of a deliberate state policy. From a policy perspective, it can be looked at from a minimum of three angles.

From the point of view of realpolitik, Kiev’s actions are logical and emerge primarily from practical considerations. It is certainly counterproductive to support the economic development of a territory bearing a hostile population and the military bases of a potential enemy.

Taking into account that Russia has not yet been able to ensure an even minimally efficient supply to Crimea from the mainland (and it is not clear when this will happen), the only significant conduit for goods reaching the peninsula is via Ukraine. In this situation, every freight wagon and container reaching Crimea from its territory is, relatively speaking, another hour’s worth of resistance against the Ukrainian armed forces should they invade the peninsula, a possibility Ukraine has yet to rule out.

Furthermore, the worse the situation in Crimea, the more financing Russia must provide for its development – all this in light of the country’s currently difficult economic conditions. (Indeed, serious tensions between Moscow and Crimea over the allocation of funds coming from the federal centre have existed for quite some time.) So, the trade blockade not only deals a serious blow to the peninsula’s economy but also adds to the discord between local and federal elites, which directly benefits Ukraine.

The situation looks somewhat different from the point of view of regional political processes in Ukraine. The termination of trade with Crimea negatively impacts at least two neighbouring Ukrainian regions – Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts. Their business elites, not terribly loyal to Kiev anyway, get yet another reason to support the Opposition Bloc instead of pro-government political parties.

Added to this are growing ethno-political tensions between the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians in Kherson Oblast, as well as rumours about the creation on part of its territory of a “Tatar Autonomous Region”, and the region being one of the only in the southeast where the local authorities ending up in the hands of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc could potentially turn into nothing short of a second Donbas.

Finally, there is also an important symbolic aspect to the trade blockade. Up until now, in public discourse, Ukraine has treated Crimea as an inalienable part of its own territory and its population as fellow Ukrainian citizens. After this, any statement like “Crimea is Ukraine!” or “Our compatriots live in Crimea” will seem preposterous, in the very least. You cannot call someone a compatriot and then stifle his ability to live normally. Generally speaking, what is happening is a textbook case of the infamous Ukrainian proverb Що не з’їм то понадкусую (Sho ne zym to ponadkusnuyu), which means “What I can’t eat, at least I’ll take a bite of” or “I’ll ruin what I can’t have.”

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