Russia and Ukraine Engage in Angry Territorial Dispute

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:14pm EDT

Moscow ( - Russia and Ukraine are at loggerheads over Russia's construction of a dam in an area under dispute between the two largest former Soviet countries.

Claiming that the work threatens its sovereignty, Ukraine's government has dispatched border guards to the small island of Tuzla, near where Russia is building a dam in a narrow strait between Ukraine's Crimea and a Russian peninsula to the east.

The Kerch strait divides the Azov Sea and the Black Sea to the south, and the island is in the center of it.

Despite angry exchanges, senior officials on both sides are trying to defuse the tensions.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich spoke with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Kasyanov, on Tuesday, reportedly assuring him there would be no armed conflict over Tuzla.

The two countries' presidents - Vladimir Putin and Leonid Kuchma, both traveling outside their respective countries - have also spoken by phone, and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is scheduled to visit Oct. 30 to discuss the dispute.

Putin and Kuchma signed a treaty last January delineating the land border between the two nations, but the status of the Azov Sea and parts of the maritime border remain unresolved after seven years of negotiation.

Ukraine claims Moscow failed to get its consent before starting to build the dam. Kiev fears the project will link the tiny island of Tuzla with nearby Russian territory.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Markiyan Lubkivsky said his government would "under no circumstances" allow the dam to be connected to Tuzla, which Ukraine regards as its territory.

Lubkivsky urged Russia to stop the construction and "not to cross the Ukrainian border."

Russia's ambassador to Ukraine, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, is reported by the Interfax news agency to have pledged that the construction work would stop "on the Russian territory," but he declined to say whether he viewed Tuzla as Russian or Ukrainian land.

Kiev has warned that Moscow's refusal to halt construction of the dam could prevent ratification of a common market agreement with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Last September, Russia succeeded in uniting major former Soviet republics in a new economic grouping.

Meanwhile, some Ukrainian politicians unhappy about the dam dispute are now calling for a restoration of the country's nuclear arsenals.

On Wednesday, lawmaker Yuri Yekhanurov called into question the security guarantees under which Ukraine agreed to disarm and urged a revival to Ukraine's nuclear status.

In 1994, the United States, Russia and Britain guaranteed they would not attack Ukraine, which in turn sent some 1,900 nuclear warheads to Russia and signed on to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state.

Under the deal, the U.S., Russia and Britain undertook to respect Ukraine's existing borders, not to use economic coercion on Ukraine and not to attack the country except in self-defense or in accordance with the U.N. Charter.

The U.S. ambassador to Kiev, John E. Herbst, told journalists this week that the U.S. supported Ukraine's territorial integrity.

According to the Interfax news agency, Herbst declined to answer, however, when asked whether the U.S. would act to defend Ukraine in the event of an armed conflict over Tuzla.

Last weekend, Putin confirmed that Russia retained the right to deliver pre-emptive military strikes, and earlier this month, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov also spoke about the option and mentioned unnamed former Soviet states as potential targets.

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