The Crimean Drought

Russia Dangles ‘Donbas–For–Dam’ Deal, Exerts Pressure Through ‘Compatriots’ and Kavkaz–2020 Exercises

The Cambridge Security Initiative
 originally published this brief in July 2020. The author is grateful to Dr. Tracey German for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta reference.

Russia is dangling a return of Donbas territory to Ukraine under special conditions in return for water for Crimea,two-thirds of which is suffering from severe drought. Russia already spends £4 billion a year on both territories and the drought is adding to sanctions pressure. Hostile comments by United Russia politicians towards former Soviet republics around the recent constitutional ‘referendum’ came amid Russia’s accelerating push to give Donbas residents citizenship. Ahead of September’s Kavkaz (Caucasus)–2020 military exercise, such events signpost Russian efforts to corner Ukraine into restarting water supplies to Crimea before a possible third-straight dry winter.

The peninsula now depends on weather because groundwater reserves cannot cope. Well-drilling, desertification, and soil salinization are forcing migration from the north and east to elsewhere in Crimea/Ukraine. Until Russia invaded, the affected areas got 85 percent of supplies from Ukraine’s North Crimea Canal (NCC). It fedeight of Crimea’s 23 reservoirs, though canal flows by 2013 were one-third of 1980s volumes, partly due to drought in Kherson region (where a vital dam now blocksthe NCC). Back then, Crimea had 1,550 square miles of irrigated land; by 2018, only 66. In 2019, Crimea lost £140 million to water shortages; Russia has promised £12 billionfor major water projects by 2024 but even if they run to schedule, they will not meet demand.

It may therefore be no accident that Konstantin Zatulin, a prominent politician, urged an aggressive foreign policy in post-Soviet states to defend the cultural identity and interests of 17 million ‘compatriots’ (the catch-all term applying even to mindset, i.e. pro-Russian). Russia wants its buffer zone back so controlling countries, preferably indirectly, that Zatulin openly named — Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan — is a priority. Section 69 of the just-endorsed constitution conveniently strengthens the protection of ‘compatriots’ by law. So it may also be no accident when Russia says it is boosting efforts to give up to 800,000 Donbas residents citizenship in 2020. More ‘compatriots’ abroad mean more excuses to meddle for ‘humanitarian’ reasons.

Both proposals may have been tests of public reaction. Likewise Ukrainian statements, including by the prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, about re-opening the NCC for humanitarian reasons. Ukrainian public outcry led to the retraction of these ideas but a failed NCC privatization attempt adds to unease, since Russia has made water for Crimea a precondition to settling the Donbas issue.

But most pressure comes from 87,000 (and rising) Russian troops massing on five fronts along two-thirds of Ukraine’s borders, from Bryansk in the north to Moldova in the southwest. Russia says this is only for Kavkaz–2020 but recent events raise concerns. President Vladimir Putin decreed reserve conscription “for military training” without start or end dates, and Ukraine’s Security Service found anexplosives cache in Kalanchak district, Kherson, near the key NCC dam


Neither Crimea nor Russia can afford a third-straight dry winter. Crimea’s immediate priority is easing water shortages until the end of August and peak tourist season, though sanctions and now COVID-19 have left businesses there on life support. Since 2014, Crimean exports have plunged 28-fold, imports 35-fold and tourism has halved. With Putin’s power reconfirmed by the ‘referendum,’ he cannot hide as easily from coronavirus and economic recession: as both worsen, so will his ratings. Domestic unrest will grow so Putin will look to deflect attention by targeting neighboring countries. Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova have upcoming elections that could tempt Russian action under cover of Kavkaz–2020 preparations, especially with the United States increasingly focused on its own electoral showdown.

Dr. Victor Madeirai writes on geopolitics for The Cambridge Security Initiative. He frequently briefs decision-makers on hostile state activity and national security transformation, and is the author of “Britannia and The Bear: The Anglo–Russian Intelligence Wars.” His next book assesses how democracies can develop “strategic immunity” against 21st century hostile state activity.

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.


Dr. Victor Madeira
27 July 2020


  • Kherson region urgently needs fortification. Water is one of the few levers Ukraine has.

    Liked by 4 people

  • I found some very limited info on Ochakiv:

    Whatever is there needs to be massively ramped up.

    Liked by 3 people

  • onlyfactsplease

    “Russia is dangling a return of Donbas territory to Ukraine under special conditions in return for water for Crimea…”
    I hope that the television clown won’t bend over for this Ruskie carrot. As Scradge already said, water is one of the few advantages that Ukraine has over mafia land.

    Liked by 3 people

  • This is like a thief going in to a jewellers shop. Stealing a diamond bracelet and an expensive watch. Then saying to the owner, let me keep the bracelet, and I will return the watch, but the said watch will be broken, smashed beyond recognition, and you will have to pay for it. If I get what I want, I might not come into your shop and steal again, but then again, I might.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Putler and his nazi gangster philosophy summarized. Pisscough just showed it yesterday!

      Liked by 4 people

    • Great analogy Sir Foccusser. I’ve always believed Donbas was a distraction for Crimea too, as was South Ossetia for Abkhasia. Even if water was let into occupied Crimea and the filth left eastern Donbas, they would be back eventually. If you reward bad behavior then you can expect MORE bad behavior. Moskali are like children.

      Liked by 2 people

  • англійський масон

    They can’t afford to do anything about the situation, but they can afford to make it worse, pay for an increase in a conscripted army etc.

    They can’t afford to improve the situation in land they have, but they steal more land.

    They can’t afford to improve the situation in the land they had and the land they have stolen, but they want to steal even more land.

    Consider the story of the Monkey Trap.

    Monkeys are fast and agile creatures – it’s near impossible to catch them. The clever hunters in Africa would design monkey traps based on monkeys’ behavior patterns.

    I’m not sure whether they still do this, the hunters would use glass jars with an opening slightly bigger than a monkey’s hand. They would put food like banana and peanuts in them.

    When a monkey sees one of the jars, its hand would reach inside and grab the food, and the hand is now turned into a fist. It then withdraws only to realize that the hand is now stuck. No matter how hard it tries, the hand cannot be freed from the jar. The opening of the jar is simply not large enough for the fist to get out.

    The only way the monkey can free its hand is to let go of the food. Despite possessing the means to escape the trap, the monkey won’t let go as it grips the food ever so tightly.

    Liked by 4 people

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