Bitter row erupts as Russia builds dam on Ukraine border

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The Independent Online

Russian authorities have suspended work on a dam in the Kerch Strait near its sea border with Ukraine after the Ukrainian President, Leonid Kuchma, cut short an official visit to Brazil to warn that the dam would not be allowed to cross into his country's waters.

Alexei Tkachev, the governor of Krasnodar, the region in southern Russia building the sea dam, said construction would stop for two or three days to allow talks between the countries' prime ministers, who are due to meet in Moscow today to resolve the wrangle.

Ukraine has repeatedly asked Russia to halt construction of the dam, begun last month in the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway with the Russian shore on its east and the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula on the west allowing passage from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov.

The pleas were ignored and alarm grew in Ukraine as the dam approached the islet of Tuzla, claimed by Ukraine, and close to the sea border between the two countries.

Mr Kuchma flew by helicopter yesterday to inspect Ukrainian border troops moved to Tuzla and see a hastily installed pontoon marking the border. The Russians suspended work on the causeway, which stretches from the mainland towards Tuzla and is now about a hundred metres short of what Kiev considers to be Ukraine's border.

Russian authorities insist the dam is needed for ecological reasons, including to prevent erosion of the Russian shoreline.

Many Ukrainians claim the dispute has been provoked to force Ukraine to accept agreement on favourable terms to Moscow on control over the Sea of Azov. The seabed is rich in oil and gas reserves.

One leading Ukrainian member of parliament, Yuriy Kostenko, said: "Despite all the declarations of brotherly affection for Ukraine, Moscow is showing what it really thinks of Ukraine. It is doing this to demonstrate to Ukraine who the master is in this region."

Mr Kuchma, who prides himself on good relations with Russia, appeared genuinely shocked by the Russian actions. After visiting Tuzla he said: "I am forced to admit that I have not seen appropriate respect given to Ukraine and its 48 million people."

Mr Kuchma said he hoped there would be an amicable resolution but has warned that an agreement signed last month between Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus to form a common economic space is in jeopardy.

He has appealed for support in the dispute from Western countries and said he was ready to call on guarantees of Ukraine's territorial integrity given by nuclear powers when Ukraine abandoned its nuclear arsenal a decade ago, then the third largest in the world.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine have long been strained. Ukraine has, since independence in 1991, tried to forge closer ties with the West without alienating its giant northern neighbour. Ukraine wants to join the EU and Nato and has sent a large military contingent to bolster coalition forces in Iraq. The present dispute is the most serious and has stoked fears that Moscow still wants to exert control over Ukraine.

The EU and Nato have urged Ukraine and Russia to solve the conflict peacefully themselves. John Herbst, the American ambassador to Ukraine, said: "Our position is clear: we stand for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We support good relations between Ukraine and Russia."

Whatever the outcome of the talks the dispute has unearthed some of the historical mistrust between Russians and Ukrainians. Some Ukrainian politicians have expressed readiness to use military means if needed to resolve the crisis. Russian TV showed Ukrainian military exercises held on Wednesday in Crimea but without saying they had been scheduled long before the dam drama began.

Russians in Krasnodar, who pride themselves on descent from Cossack warriors, have also been sabre-rattling. Mr Tkachev looked out at Tuzla from the unfinished dam yesterday and said: "This land is drenched in Cossacks' blood. It is a sacred land for us. We will firmly defend our interests and ask the government and president to resolve this question in favour of Krasnodar."

* President Vladimir Putin opened an air base in Kyrgyzstan yesterday, Russia's first military outpost abroad since the Soviet Union collapsed, and a springboard for reviving its clout in volatile Central Asia. The base at Kant, 19 miles from a US base in the small, mountainous republic, is seen as a symbolic reversal of Moscow's humiliating military retreat after the Soviet Union's demise in 1991. Russia closed its last military bases outside the former Soviet Union, in Vietnam and Cuba, in 2002.