Russia pushes for control of Azov Sea

MOSCOW OCT. 26. Demonstrating new resolve to assert its dominance across the former Soviet Union Russia has moved to take control of the disputed Kerch Strait between the Azov and the Black Seas, which it shares with Ukraine.

Over the past three weeks Russia has built a nearly 4,000-metre dam across the Kerch Strait from its coast to a tiny island claimed by Ukraine. Moscow disputes the claim, arguing that the Tuzla Island is in fact part of a spit that bulged into the sea from Russia's Taman Peninsula until it was blown away by a storm in 1925. Russian officials said they had merely restored the spit to protect coastal lands against destructive flooding.

The construction of the dam sparked a major row between Russia and Ukraine, with the latter moving troops and warships to the area and the Ukrainian President, Leonid Kuchma, interrupting a tour of Latin America to handle the crisis. Russia eventually suspended work on the dam on Thursday, but not before it had come within a 100 metres from the disputed island.

Control of the Tuzla Island gives control of the Kerch Strait, which is the only shipping route between the Azov Sea and the Black Sea. Russia and Ukraine failed to agree on a demarcated border through the strait following the break-up of the Soviet Union, but Ukraine unilaterally drew a borderline along the strait and has been charging Russian ships to pass through the only deep waterway on its side of the strait. There is also a strategic dimension to the dispute in the light of Ukraine's plans to join NATO. If Ukraine controls the Kerch Strait, warships of NATO and Turkey would be able to freely ply the Azov Sea deep inside Russian territory.

The Azov Sea also holds largely untapped hydrocarbon reserves, and even though ownership rights are yet to be decided between Russia and Ukraine, a Ukrainian state company has been developing oil and gas fields in the area. Russia is ready to divide the sea floor with Ukraine, but wants to leave the sea for joint use in keeping with the agreed status of the Azov as an internal sea, whereas Ukraine wants to divide the waters as in case of open seas.

Last month the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, called for strengthening Russia's presence in the Azov and Black Seas, describing the region as "a zone of strategic interest for Russia." Russia is building a military airfield and is preparing to deploy a squadron of gunboats on the Azov Sea. Russia began the construction of a dam in the Kerch Strait in apparent effort to force Ukraine to reopen stalled talks on the status of the Azov Sea. Meeting in Moscow on Friday the Prime Ministers of the two countries agreed that Russia would halt the construction of the dam, while Ukraine would withdraw its border-guards from the Tuzla Island pending talks on the ecological necessity of the dam and the status of the Azov Sea.

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