Technically speaking, the present conflict between Moscow and Kiev around Tuzla island in the Kerch Strait, which links the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, can be explained by the fact that Russia and Ukraine have failed to agree on a maritime -border. This highlights the conflict between Russian and Ukrainian interests in the Black Sea - Azov region.
Russia and Ukraine conducted several rounds of border-demarcation talks after the Soviet Union's disintegration. The Russian-Ukrainian land border was finally agreed in January 2003; however, the sides failed both to demarcate the Azov-Kerch water body and determine the Azov Sea's status.
Ukraine and Russia reached a principled accord on the Azov Sea's status in February 1998, when Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma agreed to consider the Sea of Azov as an inland Ukrainian-Russia sea, to jointly control the use of local resources and to ensure joint navigation control, as well. At the same time, it was implied that the Kerch Strait remained an inalienable part of the Azov-Kerch water body.
Russia and Ukraine launched a detailed discussion of Azov Sea problems, as well as those of the Kerch Strait, in December 1999. Moscow has always insisted that the Azov-Kerch water body retain its inland sea status, and it advocates this concept today. The Ukrainian side, though, wants to delimit the Sea of Azov because, in Kiev's opinion, the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are two different water bodies. Consequently, they must be delimited for the sake of determining the limits of littoral countries' sovereignty. Kiev insists that the Ukrainian-Russian border in the Kerch Strait existed back in Soviet times. Moscow, though, sees this border as being purely administrative, suggesting that this dispute be settled in line with international-legal norms.
The island of Tuzla, which is a key aspect of the border-demarcation process, measures 6,500 metres long and 500 metres wide. Tuzla was removed from the jurisdiction of the Temryuk district in Russia's Krasnodar territory and transferred to the Crimea on January 7, 1941 in line with a decree of the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) Supreme Soviet Presidium. On February 19, 1954 the Crimea's continental part alone was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Littoral regions and the water body were under the jurisdiction of the Union centre. Control over the Kerch Strait, as well as over local natural resources depends on the solution of the question of Tuzla's affiliation.
Up to 9,000 ships navigate the Kerch Strait each year, heading for Russia's Azov, Rostov, Taganrog, Yeisk and Temryuk ports. Moscow would lose control over the Kerch Strait's navigable sector, if this water body were to be demarcated in line with Kiev's proposals.
Apart from that, 120 promising oil and gas deposits have been discovered in the Sea of Azov. According to some estimates, the surveyed deposits in the Russian part of the water body contain some 50 million tonnes of oil and nearly 150-200 billion cubic metres of gas. Kiev would control 70 percent of the entire Azov Sea, if Tuzla were to be recognised as Ukrainian territory. Moreover, Ukraine would obtain priority rights over the development of local underwater shelf resources and fish stocks, as well.
And, finally, we must assess the possible consequences of this Ukrainian move for the entire Azov-Kerch water body, with due account taken of Kiev's clear intentions of joining NATO. Indeed, the issue of how the Azov Sea's inland-sea status will tally with Ukraine's commitments as a NATO member must be clarified, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov has noted.
In 1992, Kiev sent its findings as regards the demarcation of Azov Sea territorial waters to the UN, noting that Ukraine owned Tuzla. A 2002 diplomatic note to the Russian Foreign Ministry once again confirmed this Ukrainian position. At the same time, Ukraine has all but avoided discussing the Azov-Kerch water-body problem.
In September 2003 the Russian side started building a dam, which is to connect the Taman Peninsula with the island of Tuzla. If successful, this construction project could objectively change the regional border-demarcation situation.
In the obtaining situation, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov will hold negotiations in Kiev on the Azov-Kerch water-body issue. The sides' principled positions will also be examined during talks between the Russian and Ukrainian premiers on October 24.