An apple of discord was a small island of Tuzla (7 x 0.5 km) in the Kerch Strait, which in fact is a sand bar. In September 2003, the Russian authorities started earth-moving works in sand bar Tuzla in order to restore a part of land that connected the bar with the Taman Peninsular and was washed out in the XX century. The Ukrainian side regarded the activities of Russia as an attempt to violate its state border and demanded to terminate the works because in the opinion of Ukraine the island of Tuzla is its state territory and Russia has not right to invade.
Let’s see the history. Tuzla is a natural extension of the Taman Peninsular, which was included in the Russian Empire by the Degree on Accession of the Crimea and Kuban issued by Queen Ekaterina II in 1783. A total length of the sand bar including in its surface and subsurface parts is slightly more than 11 km. A distance between the sand bar tip and the Crimea (Ukraine) is more than 4 km. Tuzla is a southern part of the Taman Peninsular shooting out into the Kerch Straits.
How did the sand bar become an island? In 1925 a shallow canal was made in the mid of the bar for convenience of fishermen. Due to storms and deterioration of the echosystem a part of the bar was washed out, and today it looks like an island. However, overland traffic along the bar from and to the Taman Peninsular is effective because a width of the washout is about 2 km only and depth – less than 60 cm. The washout is silted day-by-day, and the bar is becoming continuous again. However, the loss of small bar Tuzla may entail big losses for our country.
Belonging of Tuzla to the coast of the Taman Peninsular, i.e. to Russia, was never disputed before the following events. In 1941, under the Degree of the Presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet Tuzla as an island has transferred from the Temruk District of the Krasnodar Territory to the Crimea ASSR, and in February 1954, Tuzla together with the Crimea Peninsular was included in Ukraine under the Resolution of the Presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet. In 1973, former First Deputy Chairman of the Kransodar Territory Executive Committee Eliseyev and Deputy Chairman of the Crimea Region Executive Committee Semenchuk ”agreed” the border between the Krasnodar Territory and Ukraine along the washout line. However all abovementioned acts may be recognized invalid due to the following reason – the transfers of Tuzla to the Crimea and later the Crimea to Ukraine were effected by the Degree and Resolution of the Presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet in 1941 and 1954 respectively but the USSR Constitution of 1936 valid at that time authorized exclusively the USSR Supreme Soviet (Articles 14, 31) but not the Presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet to change the borders between the Republics of the Union. Thus, any discussions on Tuzla belonging to Ukraine are the misrepresentation of legal reality.
Until everything was common in the USSR, nobody cared of such formalities. A problem of Tuzla emerged after the collapse of the USSR, when everybody saw that all ship channels in the Kerch Strait are outside Tuzla, i.e. in the territorial sea of Ukraine.
About nine thousand ships pass the Kerch Strait annually. A majority of them head on Russian ports Azov, Rostov, Taganrog, Eysk and Temrug. Meanwhile it looks like that the Azov Sea formally is not more an internal sea of Russia. As of today, the legal status of Tuzla is not determined. If Tuzla is ceded to Ukraine, our country will suffer colossal losses. What are they? Here are the main facts…
A strategic factor. The side that owns Tuzla, owns the Strait and controls over all vessels entering the Azov Sea. If Tuzla belongs to Ukraine, NATO ships in need may patrol the coastal wasters of the Kuban and Don areas.
An economic factor. 70 per cent of the sea area will be owned by Ukraine. Ukraine will get a preferential right to develop mineral resources of the shelf (120 promising oil and gas fields).
A navigation factor. As the ship channels are lost, Russia will lose multimillion pilot and other navigation charges. The safety of navigation, which is provided in the Strait exclusively by Russia will be brought into a question. The transport infrastructure of the RF Azov – Black Sea Basin will suffer.
An ecological factor. Russia will be unable to prevent ecological disaster in the narrow strait in an emergency, so, both coasts will inevitably suffer.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea dated December 10, 1982, which is binding upon both Russia and Ukraine delimitation of the territorial sea between the states with opposite or adjacent coasts should be performed on the basis of an agreement. The legal acts regulating the relations between Russia and Ukraine in the use of the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait include:
• Treaty between the Russian Federation and Ukraine “On Russian-Ukrainian State Border” dd January 28, 2003;
• Treaty between the Russian Federation and Ukraine “On Cooperation in Use of Azov Sea and Kerch Strait” dd Dec ember 24, 2003;
Treaty between the Russian Federation and Ukraine “On Cooperation in Use of Azov Sea and Kerch Strait” specifies that the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait are historically the internal waters of the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
Delimitation in the Azov Sea shall be provided along the line of the state border under an agreement between the Parties. All problems pertaining to the waters of the Kerch Strait shall be settled under an agreement between the Parties. Merchant ships and warships as well as other government ships operated for a non-commercial purpose under the flags of the Russian Federation and Ukraine, shall enjoy a freedom of navigation in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait. Merchant ships under the flags of third countries may enter the Azov Sea and pass the Kerch Strait provided they are heading on a Russian or Ukrainian port or pass back. Warships and other government ships operated for a non-commercial purpose of third countries may enter the Azov Sea and pass the Kerch Strait provided they are heading on a port of either of the Parties with a visit or business call by its invitation or permission as agreed upon with the other Party
Under Treaty “On Russian-Ukrainian State Border” any problems pertaining to adjacent waters shall be settled under an agreement between the Parties of the Treaty in compliance with international law. In so doing nothing contained in this Treaty shall prejudice the rights of the Russian Federation and Ukraine with respect to the status of the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait as internal waters of these two states.
Unfortunately, the norms specified in the abovementioned treaties that the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait are historically the internal waters of Ukraine and Russia in reality became empty phrases. Any agreement that would specify the state border between Russia and Ukraine in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait is still pending. Ukraine still insists that sand bar Tuzla is its state territory referring to alleged recognition of this fact by Russia at the talks on Treaty “On State Border” on January 28, 2003. However this Treaty contains no provisions that confirm transition of Russian Tuzla to Ukraine.
Pursuant to Clause 279, the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea the member-states should settle any dispute amicably. In 2003-2005, Russia and Ukraine conducted numerous talks on delimitation in the Black and Azov Seas as well as on the legal status of Tuzla.
Ukraine’s demands to draw the state border on the surface of the Azov Sea were rejected by the Russian party, which still insists on preservation of the initial status of disputable objects, i.e. recognize them internal waters of both states, because vice versa Russia may lose control over the Kerch Strait. Unfortunately the states still fail to reach a consensus.
In spite of the fact that currently Russia and Ukraine have no treaty that would regulate the matters relating to the adjacent waters, and would establish the status of Tuzla, this land in fact is under the jurisdiction of Ukraine, it has its posted border marks and operating Ukrainian frontier picket there.
Evidently this problem needs urgent solution. We cannot but hope that this territorial dispute between close relative nations will be resolved with due account for the interests of each of them, and that it will not escalate to a political conflict, and the relationship between our peoples will remain friendly.