KYIV – On the first day after his appointment as Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal mentioned the possibility of renewing the water supply from mainland Ukraine to the occupied Crimean peninsula. He was speaking on the “Right to Power” program on the 1+1 television channel on the evening of March 5.
“The issue of supplying water to occupied Crimea is not a matter of trade with the invader. It is not a matter of business. It is a matter of humanitarian responsibility before people who live in Crimea. Failure to supply water will lead to a humanitarian catastrophe… We won’t turn the water off at the mainline… We cannot stop giving water to Ukrainians,” Mr. Shmyhal said.
An outburst of public criticism followed those words. Many Ukrainians expressed their opinion on social media, and most of them voiced their disappointment with the newly appointed prime minister.
In his first address as prime minister, on March 4, Mr. Shmyhal noted that “expectations are high, patience is wearing thin, and the deadline for reforms was yesterday.” And the very next day, he felt first-hand the public’s lack of patience.
Ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin commented on Mr. Shmyhal’s statement about water for Crimea. “I want everyone to understand what will happen after the resumption of the water supply to Crimea. Formal non-recognition of the occupation will remain, but the sanctions will gradually be lifted,” Mr. Klimkin wrote on his Facebook page. “The status of Crimea will be equated with the status of the Baltic states in the USSR: the occupation is not recognized, but everything else – please. This is the end of the fight for Crimea. It will not be a problem for Russia. For them, Crimea is a military base, and the people are mere appendages to it.”
“The constant ‘trial balloons’ about supplying water to Crimea is the desire to kill two birds with one stone: to please the Russian Federation for further normalization of relations and to use, to a great extent, the favorable attitude of many Ukrainians toward the resumption of the water supply to Crimea – those who do not understand that the start of supplying water is not the beginning of de-occupation, but its end,” Mr. Klimkin said. “And, finally, the occupier is responsible for the occupied territory – this is clearly spelled out in international law. Our government is new, but international law remains the same,” the ex-minister underlined.
After hours of public discussion, Prime Minister Shmyhal spoke once again, slightly adjusting the position he had voiced earlier. One of the main points against Mr. Shmyhal’s idea was that Ukraine shouldn’t supply Russian military bases with resources, and the newly appointed prime minister reacted to that opinion. “We would like to supply water to our citizens in Crimea, but we do not have the technical ability until Crimea’s de-occupation,” he said.
“The talk show program format is not the best for discussing difficult issues – for example, the issue of water supply to Crimea. Once again, I want to emphasize that the government is not forgetting about citizens on the territory of the temporarily occupied Ukrainian Crimea. We want them to feel that we care about them,” Mr. Shmyhal wrote on his Facebook page. “In fact, for technical reasons, it is impossible to separate water that is being supplied to people from water that is supplied to military bases. This thesis was lost in the noise in the studio. The position remains unchanged: we would like to supply water to our citizens, but we cannot and do not have the technical ability to do so until the de-occupation of the peninsula and its return to Ukraine,” the prime minister explained.
Newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, who previously served as the deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, made his position clearly known on Facebook: “Ukraine is not considering resumption of the supply of Dnipro water to occupied Crimea. I want all speculation, suspicion and conjecture on this subject to stop. Period.”
Opposition National Deputy Iryna Herashchenko, who is a member of the Foreign Policy Committee in the Verkhovna Rada, reacted: “The government is a collective body, but is not yet aware of it. The prime minister wants to supply water to citizens in Crimea, not to businesses, and he boldly told the Rada about it. Agree on communication. Period.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has not commented on the differing signals sent by members of the new Cabinet of Ministers.
The Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea released a statement reacting to the public discussion about the water supply. “The representative office, once again, responding to the statements of individual officials, officially declares the inadmissibility of water supplies to the temporarily occupied territory of Crimea and Sevastopol until the moment of their de-occupation,” the statement read. “We emphasize that the supply of water to Crimea has been stopped since the occupation began. Following international law, the occupying state is responsible for ensuring the life of the population on the occupied territory.”
“Ukraine is obliged to protect the interests of its citizens, including those who are forced to reside on temporarily occupied territory,” the mission underscored. “However, the supply of water from the controlled territory of Ukraine will reduce the pressure on the occupying state. This will result in postponement of the de-occupation of the territory of Ukraine and the continuation of repressions and persecution of our citizens by the occupying Russian authorities.”
The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People also expressed opposition. “The scandalous statement of the newly elected Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal about the possibility of supplying water through the Northern Crimean Channel to temporarily occupied Crimea, voiced by him against the background of intensification in Crimea of repression and persecution of Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians by the Russian invaders became a sneaky blowback to those who have not reconciled themselves to the occupation of Crimea and remain faithful to the Ukrainian state,” Mejlis Chairman Refat Chubarov said in a statement.
“It is unacceptable to attempt to cover up such ‘initiatives’ by allegedly caring for Ukrainian citizens living in Russian-occupied Crimea. Any concessions to Russia on the part of Ukraine or its international partners only exacerbate the Kremlin’s repressive policy towards Ukrainian citizens living in temporarily occupied Crimea, first and foremost against the Crimean Tatar people,” Mr. Chubarov stressed.
Before 2014, much of the water supplied to Crimea came from the Dnipro River via the North Crimean Canal, but with the beginning of the Russian occupation, Ukraine blocked it. When Mr. Zelenskyy was elected president, Permanent Representative of Crimea under the President of the Russian Federation Georgi Muradov said the peninsula’s Russian authorities wanted to ask the Russian Federation’s leadership to initiate negotiations with Ukraine on the supply of water from the Dnipro River.
“Water can be a weapon, and it can be an instrument of surrender,” noted Ukraine’s ex-Foreign Minister Klimkin. “All you have to do is make a choice. And to assist the occupier on the territory he occupies, where he is fully responsible under international law, is capitulation.”