Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma today cut short a visit to Latin America as a bitter border wrangle between Ukraine and Russia deteriorates further. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports that the row is entering a critical phase as a dam being built by Russia in opposition to Kyiv's wishes nears the border between the two countries.
Prague, 22 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Construction on a controversial Russian dam in the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov continued today, despite repeated pleas from the Ukrainian government to halt the work.
The dispute has grown into the most serious crisis in relations between Russia and Ukraine since the latter became independent in 1991.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma cut short an official visit to Latin America, while Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich postponed visits to Estonia and Latvia.
The dam is supposed to extend from the southern Russian Krasnodar shore to the small island of Tuzla near Crimea, both Ukrainian territory.
The Russians say it is needed for ecological reasons and replaces a natural barrier that was swept away by a 1925 storm. They say without the barrier hundreds of hectares of Russian shoreline have been eroded and that the salinity of the inland Sea of Azov has been rising, adversely affecting fish farmers.
But the Ukrainian government is angry that construction work began without clearance from Kyiv. Kuchma and his government say Russia's behavior is unfriendly. They have placed border troops on Tuzla and say the dam must not cross the sea border between the two countries. But Russia has not stopped the work, and there are no signs it intends to.
The Russian Foreign Ministry angered its Ukrainian counterparts by asking for proof that Tuzla belongs to Ukraine. Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Markiyan Lubkivsky said: "It is unacceptable for Ukraine to confirm the indisputable fact -- the island of Tuzla is an inalienable part of Ukraine's territory."
Lubkivsky said yesterday that Kuchma has decided to ask for international help if the dam construction continues.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov said the "dam construction without prior notification to Ukraine and the absence of a proper response from the Russian authorities to repeated messages from their Ukrainian counterparts run counter to the spirit and letter of the treaty of friendship, cooperation, and partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation."
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has called for calm over the issue, saying the dam construction "is dictated only by economic and ecological reasons." Ivanov said: "There are no reasons to fan passions around this dam. One should let diplomats continue talks in a calm atmosphere."
However, he and his Ukrainian counterpart, Konstantin Hryschenko, are not due to meet until 30 October.
Ukraine has asked for support in the dispute from organizations and other countries. The U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, John Herbst, yesterday outlined Washington's position to journalists, but did not want to tackle the matter in depth.
"Our position is clear," he said. "We stand for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We support good relations between Ukraine and Russia and expect that these two nations will peacefully, through talks, resolve this situation. That's all I have to say on the issue."
Many in Ukraine believe there is more to the row than whether a dam is needed. Ukraine and Russia have for years failed to agree on how to divide control over the Sea of Azov and thus over the abundant oil and gas reserves that lie beneath it. The only channel deep enough for big ships to pass through the Kerch Strait is in waters claimed by Ukraine. Tolls for ships going through bring Ukraine around $180 million annually.
Some Ukrainian politicians and observers suspect Russia wants to flex its muscles before pinning Ukraine down to a deal over the sea border that is favorable to Moscow.
Professor Serhiy Komisarenko is a former Ukrainian ambassador to Britain and the UN and the head of the Ukrainian International Institute for Peace and Democracy, based in Kyiv. He said it is difficult to work out the Russian motive for the dispute but that he does not believe it is simply a dam-building issue.
"If relations between countries are supposed to be good and neighborly, then these issues are not resolved in the way it's being done currently -- by exerting pressure and by deeds which are not mutually agreed upon," he said.
He said that large-scale building projects in Ukraine or Russia usually only happen sluggishly because of a lack of resources. The dam project is suspicious because of the swiftness with which it is being carried out and the curtness of Russia's diplomatic responses.
Like others attuned to Ukrainian politics, Komisarenko does not dismiss the idea that the dam drama is meant to influence elections next year, both in Russia and Ukraine.
"It's very difficult to completely understand at present what this all means," he said. "Perhaps it's an agreement to create a situation before elections [next year] for the benefit of those taking part in them in Ukraine or in Russia. Or perhaps those forces which wish to provoke tension in relations between Ukraine [and Russia] are responsible for this. It's enough to mention that 10 years ago, in July 1993, the Russian parliament voted to declare Sevastopol [in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula] a Russian city. Therefore, it's likely that behind all this are forces which desire that relations between Ukraine and Russia should not be the best and should be strained."
Ukraine is appealing to other countries and international bodies for support in the dispute, including the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO. Kuchma asked NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson to intervene when Robertson visited Kyiv for talks on 20 October.
At present, these bodies seem reluctant to get involved, although Robertson promised to raise the issue when he next travels to Moscow for talks.
Yesterday, he said, "It's a matter of the bilateral relationship between Ukraine and Russia. It's not a matter for NATO and certainly wasn't a matter raised at the NATO-EU meeting this evening. And as I said in Kyiv yesterday, I have no doubt that Russia and Ukraine will find a way of resolving this particular problem together and quietly."
The foreign policy chief for the European Union, Javier Solana, yesterday said, "We had, as you know, a summit in Yalta not long ago between the European Union and Ukraine, and we are going to be having another summit with Russia in the coming days. I've been in touch with both military [authorities], and I hope very much, as Secretary Robertson has said, that it will be resolved and defused among themselves."
A meeting of the UN Security Council on 20 October expressed hope that the Ukrainian position will find understanding from Russia and that the dispute will be resolved in a spirit of good neighborly relations and the observance of the norms of international law.
Some Ukrainian politicians have said Kyiv should invoke Western guarantees made in 1993 for the country's territorial integrity. Those guarantees were in return for Ukraine -- then the world's third-largest nuclear power -- giving up its nuclear weapons.
Komisarenko took part in some of the talks and explains that the guarantees are still in place.
"The agreement was that nuclear powers guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity and inviolability if Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons," he said. "As we all know very well, Ukraine did give up it nuclear weapons, even though she was the third-most-powerful [nuclear state] in the world and the nuclear powers -- including Russia, not only the U.S.A., not only Great Britain, not only France and China -- guaranteed her integrity and the inviolability of her territory."
While Russian politicians and officials have made almost no public comments about the affair, tempers in Ukraine are rising, with some politicians -- such as Deputy Roman Zwarych -- suggesting Ukraine ask the United States for armed support.
Ukrainian officials say military means will not be used to resolve the issue.
While no one seriously expects the war of words to turn violent, there is no doubt it will sour relations between the two countries.
Only last month, Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement with Kazakhstan and Belarus to create a common economic zone intended to promote closer cooperation between the four states.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Hryschenko says the dam issue could hamper ratification of that agreement, which has already been criticized by many Ukrainian politicians as giving Russia too much of a dominant role.