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Aerial view from a drone of the dried-up North Crimean Canal.The Globe and Mail

Until Ukraine blocked the North Crimean Canal, the waterway was a marvel of Soviet determination to bend the earth to human dictates, bringing irrigation to the arid steppe of an important Russian outpost on the Black Sea.

The canal, with a 402-kilometre main channel that feeds a vast network of reservoirs and lesser branches, transformed dry land into fields of rice. It was, to Soviet Russia, a triumph of engineering and labour that rivalled the construction of the 4,324-kilometre Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad. For decades, it provided water to Crimea, even after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Then the Russian Army invaded in 2014, annexing Crimea from Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, a dirt berm appeared across the canal, near the place where it crosses into the Crimean peninsula. Ever since, Ukraine has blocked the canal’s flow into Crimea, cutting off a channel that had satisfied more than 80 per cent of the region’s water needs. As a result, Crimea’s fields have been parched, and its cities forced to ration water.

Now, with Russian forces massed around Ukraine, the canal has become a source of anxiety: Ukrainian officials fear that it could be an objective in a new military invasion.

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“The concern is really high, because the canal itself and the supply of water to Crimea have been a tactical objective of the Russians since 2014,” said Dmytro Natalukha, a Ukrainian MP who is chair of the country’s parliamentary Economic Affairs Committee.

Ukrainian authorities, he said, have information that Russia has gathered its fleet around Crimea’s Cape Tarkhankut, just 70 kilometres by water from Ukraine. That has raised concerns that naval forces are preparing for a landing that would bring them to Skadovsk, Kherson and other areas north of Crimea, near the canal’s route.

Such an invasion would secure water for Crimea, but place the whole southern region of Ukraine in danger, Mr. Natalukha said.

The U.S., too, has seen the canal as an important Russian target. Last year, Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, who retired after serving as commander of U.S. Army Europe from 2014 to 2017, described a Russian military offensive scenario in which “humanitarian forces” are dispatched “to relieve the water problem, which would of course be a pretext for an invasion of southern Ukraine.”

The canal is distant from the deadly skirmishes that have broken out in Ukraine’s Donbas region, where several Ukrainian soldiers have died in recent days. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukrainian authorities of genocide in Donbas – a heavily disputed statement that is widely seen as part of an effort to create a pretext for war.

Russian authorities have also accused Ukraine of committing “ecocide” and “genocide” by closing off the canal.

Russia has said it has no plans to invade Ukraine. But the total number of troops under Russian command around Ukraine is now about 190,000, the U.S. has calculated. American officials, including President Joe Biden, have said intelligence reports suggest a Russian attack is imminent.

On Sunday, the Defence Minister of Belarus said joint military exercises with Russia would continue, extending the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s northern border, near its capital of Kyiv.

Moscow has long coveted territory in southern Ukraine. In 2014, a separatist movement sought to place the country’s Black Sea coast in Russian hands. That movement, named Novorossiya, after a historic region that extended from Moldova to the Sea of Azov, largely failed.

In recent weeks, Russia has moved amphibious warships to the Black Sea from Arctic and Baltic waters. It has also positioned near Crimea two repair ships, which aren’t usually needed for drills, defence analyst H. I. Sutton wrote on Twitter.

Against this tense political backdrop, security around the North Crimean Canal is tight. After approaching a dam that controls water inflows to the canal, a Globe reporter was detained for several hours and questioned by Ukrainian security officials, police and local prosecutors. They forced the deletion of pictures of the dam, which is considered a piece of strategic infrastructure, while allowing images of dry stretches of the canal.

Water shortages threaten to damage Russia’s ability to continue building up its military presence in Crimea, said Alexander Kovalenko, an Odessa-based military analyst.

“They are and will be very vulnerable to the lack of water,” he said. “This is a very acute problem. Sooner or later, they may need to resolve it.”

One solution would be to take military possession of the canal and the regions through which it passes.

Such an action could open a way for Russian troops to drive farther into Ukraine, either toward the north, to connect with the Donbas region, or to the west, to seize economically critical ports in Odessa and Mykolaiv and create an uninterrupted Russian presence between Transnistria and Crimea.

Accomplish that, and Russia would have “Europe in a vise, from Kaliningrad to Odessa,” Mr. Kovalenko said.

“This is the most negative, apocalyptic scenario.”

Ukraine’s blockade of the canal has prompted a round of attempts to conjure water for Crimea. Authorities have committed to building desalinization plants, and Mr. Putin has said “there may be large reserves of fresh water” beneath the Sea of Azov, but it’s not clear those can be usefully extracted.

Meanwhile, Russian authorities have said the extent of irrigated land in Crimea has contracted by 90 per cent since 2014.

The government of Ukraine has said it cannot be held responsible for supplying water to land under Russian control, and has suggested that Crimea’s water shortages could be alleviated by diverting fewer resources for military use. Roughly 40,000 Russian troops have been stationed in Crimea.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has reinforced the water blockage, building a concrete dam in addition to the earthen barrier.

The legality of that act has attracted scrutiny by scholars, who have sought to assess the complexity of a situation in which a country denies water to a region that is under the control of an adversary.

“Ukraine has a right to diminish the amount of water flowing through the canal but should at the same time avoid a humanitarian crisis and provide for the essential water needs of the population of Crimea,” said Marco Pertile, a scholar of international law at the School of Law and School of International Studies in Trento, Italy.

A “complete blockade of the canal would be debatable,” he said. “But diminishing the amount of water provided to occupied Crimea is legal.”

Ukraine blocked off the flow of the North Crimean Canal soon after Russia annexed the region in 2014. The canal had provided more than 80 per cent of Crimea's water, leaving fields parched and forcing its cities to ration water.

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