In a move that further cements Russia’s control over parts of eastern Ukraine, Russian officials announced Tuesday they will begin supplying electricity to separatist-controlled areas after the Ukrainian government cut off power because of a heavy backlog of unpaid bills.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the decision as a humanitarian mission helping to keep an estimated 3 million people out of darkness in rebel-held areas in the Luhansk region along Russia’s border. The rebels are backed by Russia.
Ukraine on Monday announced it would stop supplying power because of mounting debts, and power was cut off shortly before midnight.
“Cutting the power supply to the Luhansk region is yet another step by Ukraine to push those territories away,” Peskov told reporters in Moscow, saying the move “contradicts the spirit” of the peace accords that Kiev and the rebels signed in Minsk, Belarus, under Russia and European mediation in 2015.
Despite the three years of fighting in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 9,900 people, trade and supplies of water and electricity for the most part have continued across the front line. Many factories and coal mines in this industrial heartland are interdependent, and a rupture in supply lines could cause a complete industrial breakdown.
The decision on electricity “falls into the trend of Ukraine shutting off Luhansk and Donetsk, and Donetsk shutting off Ukraine and moving closer to Russia,” said Alexei Makarkin at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “The Minsk agreements are not working, and each side waits for the other to get too weak to stand up for its interests.”
Georgiy Tuka, Ukraine’s deputy minister for the occupied territories, blamed the separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions for accumulating 11 billion hryvnias (€395 million) in unpaid debt for power supplies. Tuka said Kiev was not worried about the consequences of cutting power to large swathes of land because it expected Russia to step in.
Russia has been propping up the Donetsk and Luhansk separatists since the conflict began in April 2014, although the Kremlin has denied sending troops or weapons. The war began after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea in 2014, securing its large military marine base.
Boris Gryzlov, the Russian envoy mediating talks between the separatists and the Ukrainian government, said the separatists could not pay for the Ukrainian electricity because Kiev made it impossible to wire money from those territories into the rest of Ukraine. He said Russia would start supplying power to the area.
Separatist officials, speaking on Russian state television, said power was restored after 40 minutes thanks to local sources of electricity. They said Luhansk on Tuesday was getting electricity from two power plants on separatist-controlled territory in the Donetsk region. They also listed Russia as a source of electricity, but it was unclear whether those supplies had begun.
Despite Russia’s recent decisions to recognize separatist travel documents and supply electricity, Moscow has shown no inclination to annex those territories. The instability and uncertain status of Donetsk and Luhansk give Russia a degree of leverage over the Ukrainian government in Kiev, which is eager to align closer with the West.
After Russia failed to get Ukraine to recognize separatist authorities, it was left with two choices: abandon eastern Ukraine or provide even more support, Makarkin said. What the Kremlin appears to be doing is similar to how it has been supporting separatist forces in Moldova’s Trans-Dniester: “On the official level, you recognize it to be Ukraine’s territory but actually it isn’t so.”
The Ukrainian ombudsman for human rights, Valeria Lutkovska, criticized the government’s decision to cut off the power in Luhansk, saying it would further alienate people living in separatist-held areas from the central government in Kiev.
Cold War II: Afghanistan
The United States said Russia is providing weapons to the Taliban for use against American-backed forces in Afghanistan, top US military officials said Monday.
At a news conference with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at his side, Gen. John Nicholson, the American commander in Afghanistan, wouldn’t provide specifics about Russia’s role in Afghanistan. But said he would “not refute” that Moscow’s involvement includes giving weapons to the Taliban.
Earlier Monday, a senior US military official told reporters in Kabul that Russia was giving machine guns and other medium-weight weapons. The Taliban are using the weapons in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan, according to the official, who briefed journalists on intelligence information on condition of anonymity.
Russia denies that it provides any such support to the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan until the US-led invasion in 2001. Russia says contacts are limited to safeguarding security and getting the hard-line religious fundamentalists to reconcile with the government — which Washington has failed for years to advance. Russia also has promoted easing global sanctions on Taliban leaders who prove cooperative.
Asked about Russia’s activity in Afghanistan, where it fought a bloody war in the 1980s and withdrew in defeat, Mattis alluded to the increasing US concerns.
“We’ll engage with Russia diplomatically,” Mattis said. “We’ll do so where we can, but we’re going to have to confront Russia where what they’re doing is contrary to international law or denying the sovereignty of other countries.”
“For example,” Mattis told reporters in the Afghan capital, “any weapons being funneled here from a foreign country would be a violation of international law.”
Mattis met with President Ashraf Ghani and other senior government officials just hours after the nation’s defense minister and Army chief resigned over a massacre of more than 140 Afghan troops at a military base last Friday.
The insurgent assault was the biggest ever on a military base in Afghanistan, involving multiple gunmen and suicide bombers in army uniforms who penetrated the compound of the 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army in northern Balkh province on Friday, killing and wounding scores. The death toll was likely to rise further.
Referring to the Russians again, Nicholson said “anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw” isn’t focused on “the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.”
Given the sophisticated planning behind the attack, he also said “it’s quite possible” that the Pakistan-based Haqqani network was responsible. The Taliban claimed it carried out the attack.
Nicholson recently told Congress that he needs a few thousand more troops to keep Afghan security forces on track to eventually handling the Taliban insurgency on their own. The Trump administration is still reviewing possible troop decisions.
Mattis on Monday offered a grim assessment for Afghan forces fighting the Taliban.
“2017 is going to be another tough year,” he said.
Kabul was the final stop on Mattis’ six-nation, weeklong tour. He is the first member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet to visit Afghanistan. As part of the administration’s review of Afghan policy, Trump’s national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, visited Kabul last week to consult with Nicholson and Afghan officials.
The war began in October 2001. The US has about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. They ended their combat mission against the Taliban in 2014 but are increasingly involved in backing up Afghan forces on the battlefield.