Relations between Bucharest and Kyiv have been strained for some time over their inability to reach an agreement concerning the delimitation of the continental shelf around Serpents Island (Zmiyinyy Ostrov) in the Black Sea, and that dispute is likely to end before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Relations have deteriorated further recently over Ukraine's construction of a canal that will facilitate access to and from the Black Sea via the Danube River, but at the same time, Romania claims, would destroy the Danube Delta's unique ecosystem. Inauguration of the Bystraya Canal is scheduled for 24 August -- Ukraine's Independence Day -- according to Romanian media reports. At stake are two elements of strategic importance: the discovery of oil and gas reserves surrounding the island and the location of the planned canal, which would facilitate control of the Danube's mouth by a non-NATO member.
The small, barren island (17 hectares, with a perimeter of 1,973 meters) is situated at the east of the Danube's River mouth, 44.8 kilometers from the Romanian port of Sulina. The island was mentioned frequently in works by ancient Greek writers, when it was called Leuke, or the White Island. This is due to its calcareous geological structure. The Greeks built on the island a temple dedicated to Achilles, the mythological hero of Homer's "Iliad." The temple was destroyed in 1837 by Russian sailors, who used its stones for the construction of a lighthouse. The name Serpents Island may be traced back to the 14th-century period of Genovese dominance over the Black Sea, and is apparently due to the many reptiles found by the Genovese sailors in the ancient Greek temple's water reservoirs. The island itself lacks fresh water, however, and this is one of the reasons that until recently it was never inhabited.
Romanian (Moldavian and Wallachian) princes ruled over the island in medieval times, but Russian efforts to take control of it, if not de jure, than de facto, by simply occupying it can be traced back to the early 19th century. The first time Serpents Island was mentioned in an international treaty was in 1878, when the Berlin peace treaty concluded by Europe's then great powers included the island into Romania, whose independence from the Turks was recognized in that document.
The 1940 Soviet ultimatum to Romania, which led to the incorporation of Bessarabia, northern Bukovina, and the Herta district into the Soviet Union, made no mention of Serpents Island. It was only in August 1944 that Red Army troops occupied the island, just a few days after Romania had switched sides to the Allies. Still, the peace treaty concluded in Paris between Romania and the Allies on 10 February 1947 made no mention of the barren island either. The border between Romania and the Soviet Union as defined in that document ran north of Serpents Island, leaving it in Romanian territory. But the island remained under de facto Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1948. Romania agreed to cede it to Soviet control de jure in February 1948, after a visit to Moscow by its first communist prime minister, Petru Groza. An official protocol stipulating the transfer of sovereignty was signed on the island itself by the country's Deputy Foreign Minister Eduard Mezincescu on 23 May 1948. Moscow thus gained what at that time seemed to be "only" a strategic asset -- control over navigation at the Danube River's mouth.
Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Serpents Island became Ukrainian territory. Kyiv inherited from the Soviet Union not only the island, but also Moscow's position on the delimitation of the continental shelf. The two communist "sister countries" -- Romania and the Soviet Union --had unsuccessfully negotiated the delimitation of the shelf from 1967 to 1987. The negotiations were resumed between Bucharest and Kyiv, but by now they had acquired new, higher stakes -- the discovery of oil and gas reserves surrounding the island. The 1997 basic treaty concluded by the two countries stipulates that negotiations on the shelf's delimitation will continue and, if no agreement is reached, the sides will be able to appeal to the International Court of Justice in The Hague as a last resort. Ukraine agreed under that treaty to deploy no "aggressive weapons" on Serpents Island, and, more importantly, to consider it "uninhabited." Under international maritime legislation that means Kyiv could not claim an exclusive economic zone around the island.
But that is precisely what Ukraine did. Whether weapons meanwhile deployed on the island are or not "aggressive" is a matter of definition. But in order to transform the territory's status, as the Romanian daily "Evenimentul zilei" wrote on 11 August, Ukraine manned the island, is regularly transporting water to it, and a ship is providing regular service between the mainland and the island. Some 20 negotiation meetings conducted thus far between Bucharest and Kyiv have produced no results.
Against this background, what are the reasons for construction of the Bystraya Canal? One possible reason could rest in a bogus compromise. As "Evenimentul zilei" put it, Ukraine -- apparently in order to pressure Romania to give up any claim on the territorial shelf -- is simply preparing the ground for making a "concession" to Romania: halting use of the canal.
Kyiv, of course, it not presenting the canal in this light. It claims (as Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleksandr Motsyk put it at a Bucharest meeting of the Danube Cooperation Process on 14 July) that the canal construction is merely the reopening of a project abandoned during the Soviet era that will provide improved access to the Black Sea, thus helping develop a socially and economically poor region of Ukraine. But the canal's advantages for Ukraine are above all strategic rather than economic. It would provide Ukraine with an additional outlet to the Black Sea.
Romania has meanwhile become a NATO member, while Ukraine has apparently given up on becoming one. This means that the canal's strategic importance might be greater than first realized, and that its construction is not merely a bluff. Otherwise, why would Kyiv risk international protest and opprobrium, which the canal's construction has triggered, and why would it spend apparently considerable amounts on financing its construction by a German company?
Finally, according to Romanian media reports, the Bystraya Canal will cause Romania annual losses of at least $1.5 million, as international shipping to and from the Danube River and the Black Sea would have an alternative route to the Sulina branch of the Danube River Delta. The Ukrainians have already announced that they will charge considerably less than Romania for transit fees.