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Russia/Ukraine: Moscow Doing As It Dam Well Pleases, Despite Kyiv's Objections

For the past two weeks, Moscow and Kyiv have fought an increasingly bitter war of words over the construction of a dam in the Kerch Strait, which separates Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula from the southern Russian mainland. Ukraine has called on Russia to halt construction of the dam immediately, warning that it risks infringing on its territory. Moscow has promised talks on the issue, but officials remain evasive about who ordered the dam's construction and what its exact purpose is.

Prague, 15 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian border troops today began military exercises on the tiny island of Tuzla in the Kerch Strait, a day after the Ukrainian legislature adopted a statement warning Moscow that Kyiv intends to protect the country's integrity and the inviolability of its borders.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has promised talks with Ukrainian officials on 30 October to try to ease bilateral tensions, but so far Moscow has remained vague on the details.

At issue is a dam that Russian workers began constructing some two weeks ago from the southern Russian mainland toward an island in the middle of the Kerch Strait that Ukraine considers part of its territory.

The Kerch Strait is a narrow channel connecting the Azov and Black seas. On one side lies Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, on the other, the Russian territory of Krasnodar. In the middle of the strait is Tuzla. Until almost 80 years ago, Tuzla was actually connected to the Russian mainland, but a violent storm in 1925 turned it into an island.

Two decades later, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev awarded Crimea to Ukraine, then a Soviet republic. When Ukraine acquired independence in 1991, it took Crimea along with it -- as well as Tuzla.

The problem is that despite years of talks following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine have been unable to delineate a common sea border in the area. The dam construction has suddenly brought the issue to the fore, with Moscow refusing to issue a clear statement on the status of Tuzla and its surrounding waters and some Ukrainian officials fearing Russia is about to grab what they consider to be their territory.

RFE/RL political analyst Jan Maksymiuk puts the dispute into context: "This dam construction is only an episode in a much bigger political play involving the delimitation of the sea border between Ukraine and Russia. There has been no compromise on this issue. Talks have continued for several years now. Basically, Russia wants to leave the Azov Sea -- as they say -- for joint use, and Ukraine wants to make a clear dividing line on the map, and say that this part of the sea belongs to Ukraine and this one to Russia."

The reason for the respective Russian and Ukrainian positions is made clear by looking at the region's geography, as well as the Azov Sea's potential natural resources, as Maksymiuk explains.

"The Ukrainian coastline encircles at least 70 percent of the area of the Azov Sea, so Ukrainians are counting that at least a similar part of the sea will become their domestic sea. The problem, of course, involves big future economic profits because there are more than 100 oil and natural gas deposits discovered at the bottom of this sea. So it's no wonder that this problem is very important for both Kyiv and Moscow," Maksymiuk said.

That much is clear. What remains a mystery is why exactly the dam is being built and who ordered its sudden construction. Aside from calling for calm, officials in Moscow have been largely silent.

Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency says the dam is being built to "restore the ecological [balance]" of the area. Other Russian newspaper articles cite the Black Sea's high salt content, which is allegedly polluting the Azov Sea and preventing the breeding of certain types of fish. Ukraine's respected "Zerkalo Nedeli" newspaper says local Russian officials in the Krasnodar region could have come up with the plan in the hope of eventually building a direct road link to Crimea, for smuggling purposes.

Maksymiuk says it is likely the dam's construction plans did originate in Krasnodar, as opposed to in Moscow, quickly turning it into an international political confrontation.

"I personally believe that the construction may have been begun as a local initiative, but since it has been continuing for two weeks to date, it's become a political issue for both Moscow and Kyiv, of course," Maksymiuk said.

Some analysts believe that by refusing to address Ukraine's increasingly strident demands for Moscow to recognize its territorial borders, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be using the issue to pressure Kyiv into future concessions or just to flex Russia's muscle.

Others take the reverse view, as Maksymiuk explains: "The others say that [Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma may benefit a bit, that there is a sort of conspiracy between Kuchma and Putin. Putin allegedly wants Kuchma to remain for a third presidential term, so Putin wants to give Kuchma a good opportunity to show his toughness in defending Ukrainian political interests."

All may become clearer after Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov meets his Ukrainian counterpart Konstyantyn Grishchenko in Kyiv on 30 October. In the meantime, dam construction looks set to continue as tempers rise.