Archive for November, 2014

Volodya Putin in deep thought

Volodya Putin in deep thought

Putin seized Crimea, but lately he hasn’t been banging his pots and pans too much about cutting off the natural gas supply to Ukraine, even though Russia claims Ukraine owes it up to $38.4 billion for previous purchases. While the figure varies, it seems only to have increased after the EU and the International Monetary Fund confirmed they would assist Ukraine in paying the debt. Still, Czar Vladimir has sent his troops and tanks rumbling back and forth across eastern Ukraine.  Crimea has become Putin’s 21st century version of the Sudetenland, with Russian speakers standing in for Hitler’s Sudeten Germans, or “Volksdeutsche.”

Czar Vladimir is not in a position to threaten Ukraine with a natural gas shutoff because he overlooked Energy Rule Numero Uno before seizing Crimea. For a rule so easily stated, it’s surprising how many decision-makers forget to consider it:

Energy Rule #1: Energy is all about infrastructure.

From electric transmission lines to natural gas pipelines or railroads, if you can’t get the energy from the source to the load, you can’t use or control the energy.

To see what dear Volodya (the Ukrainian variant of “Vladimir” is “Volodimyr,” from which both Russian and Ukrainian derive the masculine diminutive “Volodya”) missed, let’s take a look at some maps. The first shows the natural gas supply lines from Russian into Ukraine:

Gas pipelines in Ukraine

Gas pipelines in Ukraine

Two things are worth noting. First, a vast amount of Russia’s natural gas pipelines to Europe flow through Ukraine. Threatening Ukraine with a natural gas shutoff would impede flows to European customers, reducing much needed revenues. Russia depends on the sale of oil and natural gas to fund itself. European customers might resell to Kiev, or Kiev could tap into the lines. Second, Crimea’s natural gas supply comes in from Ukraine, not Russia, so cutting off Ukraine would only hurt Putin’s Volksdeutsche.

Now let’s take a look at electricity transmission lines serving Crimea:


Electricity transmission in Ukraine and Crimea

Electricity transmission in Ukraine and Crimea


The Crimean peninsula has four thermal power plants with an aggregate nameplate capacity of 327 MW. But these were built during the Soviet era and their functional capacity is in the range of 100-110 MW.  Crimea also has substantial wind and solar generation facilities, but these are intermittent and seasonal. Demand on the peninsula ranges from 850MW to 1,200MW in winter. Net, Crimea depends for more than 80% of its electricity requirements on transmission from Kiev.

So, if Volodya were to cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine, he would simultaneously shut off electricity to the Crimean Volksdeutsche he purports to love so much.

Transporting natural gas overland to Crimea is no easy matter either, completely apart from the economics of building the requisite facilities and the losses on LNG conversion and reconversion:

530 km from Rostov to Dzhankoy

The route from from Rostov-on-Don (A) to Dzhankoy (B)


It’s about 530 kilometers from Rostov-on-Don (A), through Mariupol, to Dzhankoy (B), the nearest large town on the Crimean peninsula. About 400 of those kilometers are inside Ukraine. So let’s take a look at our next map, which shows the concentration of Russian-speakers in the areas en route between these two points:

Blue means more Russian speakers, gray means fewer

Blue means more Russian speakers, gray means fewer

The concentration of Russian speakers (and those who voted for Yanukovic) thins out as one approaches the isthmus connecting Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland, and it doesn’t rebound until one is on the peninsula itself. So if Volodya did want to supply Crimea with energy resources trucked overland, he would have to organize convoys and defend them from potential guerilla attacks and sabotage in hostile territory, just at the U.S. did in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would require Russian troops to secure the route, and those are long-term, not short-term deployments. This presents at least two additional problems for Volodya. First, if he has to move Russian troops from other posts, those areas (think Russian frontier with Chechnya) become less safe. Second, he has to contend with the potential reaction of Russian families whose sons/daughters will be coming home in body bags in order to satisfy his territorial ambitions.

Why wouldn’t Volodya build a natural gas pipeline across the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov and separates Crimea from the Russian mainland by a mere 1.9 kilometers at its narrowest point? This can be done, but the area is seismically active, which presents difficulties for any infrastructure (the Nazis tried but failed to bridge it during the Battle of the Kerch Peninsula in WWII). An even greater difficulty is the shallowness of the strait. At 59 feet maximum depth, any subaqueous pipeline is vulnerable to attack, with the explosive impact of a charge inversely proportional to the depth at which it detonates. Further, that would take money, and given Russia’s economic travails and the impact of sanctions, a pipeline to Crimea would be a tough sell even for Volodya.

Next time, Volodya, a leader who likes to use energy as a weapon, may want to think a little further ahead before he annexes territory, especially regarding energy infrastructure.

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