By Alan Cullison, Europe correspondent, Wall St. Journal, Friday, Dec. 26, 2014
MOSCOW—Ukraine cut off electricity as well as train and bus services to Crimea on Friday—moves that could raise tensions with Russia, which annexed the peninsula in March and has been prodding Kiev to negotiate with Russia-backed rebels in Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
The power cutoff is the second this week by Ukraine, which says it has electricity shortages of its own because rebels have halted shipments of coal to its power plants. The canceling of train and bus services, however, could indicate Ukraine is increasing its pressure on the peninsula.
On Friday, Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc. confirmed that they were suspending operations in Crimea to comply with the latest wave of U.S. sanctions that banned doing business on the peninsula. The European Union also imposed Crimea-specific sanctions this month.
All of these moves signify the increasing economic isolation of Crimea as both Kiev and the West seek to penalize the peninsula’s separatist authorities and their patrons in Moscow. The moves will likely push Crimea into a greater dependence on the Russian federal budget, which has already incurred significant costs from the annexation.
In closing transport services, Ukrainian officials cited safety concerns. Passenger and cargo train service, both foreign and Ukrainian, would be halted to the peninsula “to ensure the safety of passengers,” said Ukraine’s state rail company, Ukrzaliznytsia. Ukrainian security services issued a statement saying that bus service also was being halted to protect passengers and cited threats of “armed groups, extremist parties and the military aggression of the Russian Federation.” [Before the closure, there were some ten trains per day in each direction between Crimea and Ukraine.–NCW]
The moves come as talks between Kiev and Russia-supported rebels to end the fighting this week got off to an unsteady start. Ukrainian officials and representatives of the rebels met for the first time in months for about five hours in Minsk, Belarus. However, the two sides failed to agree on more than a prisoner exchange and didn’t set a date for their next meeting, officials said.
The talks, mediated by Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, aim to cement a putative cease-fire that was declared in September between Ukrainian and rebel troops. Although fighting has tailed off in recent weeks, more than 1,300 have been killed since the cease-fire was declared. Altogether, more than 4,700 have been killed since fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in the spring.
Cutting supplies to Crimea may be a lever of influence for Kiev, since the matter has become a headache for Moscow after it annexed the territory in March. Crimea has no overland connection to Russia and traditionally has relied on a land bridge to Ukraine for essentials such as food, power and water.
Kiev closed an irrigation canal into Crimea in April that had supplied 85% of its water. The Ukrainian power company, Ukrintenergo, which supplies about 80% of Crimea’s electricity, has shut down service intermittently in recent months, saying that the peninsula was using more than its agreed-upon allotment.
Left unresolved, the supply problems could cripple Crimea’s economy, which relies heavily on summer tourism and is hobbled already by sanctions from the U.S. and Europe.
Crimea’s fuel and energy minister, Sergei Egorov, told Russia’s Interfax news agency that power was cut off at 1:50 p.m. Friday without warning. He said backup diesel generators and mobile turbine power plants were supplying critical infrastructure with electricity.
Mobile-phone service on the peninsula also was suffering disruptions, Interfax reported.
EuroNews report here:
* Visa, MasterCard suspend servicing Russian banks in Crimea, RT.com, Dec. 26, 2014
* From ‘Truth About the Situation in Ukraine’ Facebook page, Dec. 29, 2014:
Do you want to know how people arrive in Crimea from Ukraine? I will tell you. In Novoalekseyevka, everyone leaves their vehicles and then there are these options: Travel by bus to the border and then on to Simferopol at a cost of 700 UAH per person (US$44). Or take a taxi to Chonhar [the border town] for 300 – 400 UAH. Taxis do not drive up to the check-point. From Chonhar, people walk to the Crimea border.
People are passing through the checkpoint in groups of ten. Newcomers have to queue for an hour and a half in the bare steppe when the temperature is – 3 C, it is raining and severe cold wind is blowing. After passing the Ukrainian checkpoint, people WALK about THREE KM across the neutral land with bags and suitcases (also the elderly and women with children), in conditions of terrible side wind carrying mud from the Sivash firth (those who had been in the area before, know what is meant). Then there’s the Crimean checkpoint in Turetskuy Val, where checking takes about 40 minutes. Children and pregnant women are given priority.
Beyond the Crimea checkpoint, they can take buses free of charge to Dzhankoy. These leave as soon as they are full.
Those who saw the procession of people walking towards the Crimea border cannot shake off a spooky déjà vu feeling, as if they had plunged in the atmosphere of WWII movies of photographs dating back to that time. Thank you, Ukrainian Railway, for the wondrous New Year celebration!
* Crimea to be linked to Russia with bridge across Kerch Strait, not tunnel – railways chief, from Interfax Ukraine, Nov 20, 2014