MOSCOW (AP) — 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 in eastern Ukraine after the Ukrainian government cut off the power because of millions in unpaid bills.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the decision as a humanitarian mission — helping to keep an estimated 3 million people out of darkness — but would not say exactly when or how the power supply will be flowing into the rebel-controlled Luhansk region that borders Russia. The rebels are backed by Russia.
Ukraine on Monday announced it will stop supplying power to rebel-held areas in Luhansk because of mounting debts, and local media reported the supply was cut off around 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, the trade, water and power supply crossing the front-line never fully stopped. Many local factories and coal mines in this industrial heartland situated on different sides of the conflict are interdependent, and a rupture in the supply lines can 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, Ukrainian deputy minister for occupied territories, on Tuesday blamed the separatists in parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk region for accumulating 11 billion hryvnias ($431 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 Ukrainian authorities were expecting 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 to the rebels. The war began after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea in 2014, securing its large military marine base there.
Boris Gryzlov, the Russian envoy mediating talks between the separatists and the Ukrainian government, said Tuesday that 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.
The Luhansk Information Center reported the power supply was cut at 11:40 p.m. Monday but said it was restored thanks to local sources of power in the separatist areas.
Despite Russia's recent decisions to recognize separatist travel documents and supply electricity, an actual annexation does not appear to be on the horizon, Russia watchers say.
After Russia failed to get Ukraine to recognize separatist authorities, it was left with two choices: abandon eastern Ukraine or prop it up even further, 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."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday lashed out at Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for not following through with the Minsk peace deal, saying "the Ukrainian government has not done a single thing it was obliged to under various pretexts."
The Ukrainian ombudsman for human rights, Valeria Lutkovska, criticized the government's decision to cut off the power in Luhansk, saying the move would further alienate people living in separatist-held areas from the central government in Kiev.