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Russia/Ukraine: Ire Over Kerch Straits Mellows

Last year tension heightened dramatically between Russia and Ukraine over Tuzla Island in the Kerch Strait, a narrow body of water providing access from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. It took a meeting between the two countries' presidents to defuse the situation. RFE/RL reports on what has happened since.

Prague, 15 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian attempt last year to build a dam from its Krasnodar shore to the Ukrainian island of Tuzla provoked a bitter dispute, with Ukraine claiming its former imperial master was threatening its territorial integrity.

Ukraine dispatched troops to defend Tuzla as it repeatedly asked Russia to halt construction of a dam in the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway with the Russian shore on its east and the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula on the west. The strait allows passage from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov.

Russian authorities insisted the dam was needed for ecological reasons -- to prevent erosion of the Russian shoreline. But Ukraine suspected the dispute was engineered to force acceptance of an agreement over control over the Sea of Azov and access to it.

Russia has had to pay fees for its ships to navigate a channel through the Kerch Straits. In addition, geologists believe the Azov seabed is rich in oil and gas reserves.

The tension lasted from September until November as Russia ignored Ukrainian demands to halt the dam construction. The drama poisoned Ukrainian-Russian relations and threatened to smash plans for Ukraine to join a four-nation economic union with Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus called the Single Economic Space.

Only after Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma cut short a visit to Brazil to talk with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin did the Russians stop extending the dam.

The director of the Kyiv Institute of Political and Conflict Studies, Dr. Mykhaylo Pohrebynsky, a close adviser to the Ukrainian presidential administration, says that following talks between the two presidents, high-level working groups were set up. These have led to provisional agreements for division of the Sea of Azov and control over the navigable channels in the Kerch Straits.

Pohrebynsky says he believes that the Russian ecological concerns were a pretext for action and that Moscow encouraged the drama to prevent Ukrainian legislators from adopting a law to treat the Azov Sea in a similar way to the Black Sea in respect of borders. There Ukrainian waters are separated from Russian waters by a neutral zone or international waters.

Pohrebynsky said Russia was dismayed at the prospect of such an international zone, where for instance NATO ships could sail freely. Russia was keen to keep the Azov Sea's status as that of an internal sea under the control of itself and Ukraine with no rights for anyone else.

Pohrebynsky said the two presidents agreed not to take any unilateral steps that would cause tension over the waterways. Pohrebynsky believes that detailed agreements will be signed soon classifying the Sea of Azov as an internal sea. "It's going to be a unique status, unlike that of the Black Sea, and the Ukrainian civil servants who drew up proposals gave the Russians a fright and thus the Russians used the dam as an argument that could prevent Ukraine from adopting certain decisions," he said. Moreover, he noted that Ukraine wants to join NATO -- "and this could cause Russia problems."

He says Ukraine had to compromise on important points. "Russia gets -- and this may seem as if Ukraine has made a concession -- the right to joint use of the channel. That was Russia's fundamental aim to secure joint control with Ukraine," Pohrebynsky said.

Foreign, specifically NATO, warships cannot pass through the channel without Moscow's permission under the agreements. Pohrebynsky says Russia, in return, dropped its objections to delineating boundaries in the Sea of Azov. "The political agreement between the two presidents calls for Russia's agreement to drawing up a frontier and not only on the sea bed but along its surface and above it, that is to say, the aim that Ukraine had pursued," he said. "To finally fix a frontier between Ukraine and Russia -- because this remained the last fragment of the border which had not been finally agreed upon."

At their meeting last month, Putin and Kuchma agreed to create a joint consortium to manage the Kerch Strait. Pohrebynsky says it is unclear whether Russia will have to continue paying fees for its ships to pass through the channel but Moscow will, in any case, contribute financially to the consortium.

Although it appears to have been a compromise agreement, some in Ukraine inevitably feel that Kyiv lost out on the deal. Director Ivan Lozowy of the Institute for Statehood and Democracy, an independent Kyiv-based think tank, is one them. "Undoubtedly, there was a winner and a loser," he said. "The loser was Ukraine and I believe the defeat was complete. Not only was Tuzla Island given away -- and at some point it will probably become a peninsula joined to the Russian Federation by a dam -- but even the division of the Azov Sea that Putin agreed to runs completely contrary to any benefit for Ukraine."

Lozowy believes that Russian officials engineered the Tuzla crisis because they were confident they would get their way. "There is only one thing that triggered the Tuzla crisis and that is Ukraine's weakness and [the] weakness of Ukraine's government. In other words, Putin and his team knew in advance that Kuchma would agree to all their demands," he said.

Ukrainian parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn said it is difficult to know when the Azov and Kerch agreements will be finalized because the documents are still being prepared. Pohrebynsky believes it will be done soon. He says it's unclear what will become of the dam. Technical and ecological commissions have been set up to decide its fate.