Reconnaissance-in-force. How Russia tried to take over Ukrainian territory in 2003

© The Ukrainian Week

Roman Malko, The Ukrainian Week

Why the conflict over the Tuzla island in the Kerch strait should be considered as a prelude to the Russo-Ukrainian war

The Russo-Ukrainian war was programmed to happen. It was impossible to avoid or divert, perhaps only to delay it. The existence of an independent Ukraine was never compatible with the plan of the Kremlin and its leaders. Periodic talks of ‘friendship’ between ‘two brotherly peoples’ played the role of a false lullaby, deceiving Ukrainians who then lowered their guard as Russia was preparing to smother Ukraine in its ‘brotherly embrace’. The longer the postponement of the conflict, the more brutal it would likely become. The passing of time indeed brings its own contribution to such matters. While the empire (i.e. Russia) was dreaming of returning to its former glory, the Ukrainian people gradually adapted themselves to life without its past slavery and were slowly getting used to freedom. Upon realising the full value of freedom and deciding that there is no going back, Ukrainians wanted nothing to do with Russia’s imperial vision.

Volodymyr Kryzhanivskyi, the first ambassador of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, in an interview with the Ukrainian Week, talked about Yeltsin’s reaction upon hearing that the Ukrainian people were likely to support independence from the USSR en masse, if a referendum was to be carried out. ‘Our main goal is to remove our primary target – Mikhail Gorbachev. The rest, we will take care of’, said Yeltsin in response to Halyna Starovoytova, who came to announce some of the ‘worrying’ tendencies. ‘Taking care of’ Ukraine in this sense, Russia was not able to do. Kryzhanivskyi said that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the removal of Gorbachev, the new Russian Federation was on the brink of famine. ‘They were not paying attention to Ukraine as they were forced to feed their own population. In two years, Gorbachev and Yeltsin spent half of the gold reserves of the USSR. The situation was catastrophic’.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin never took its eyes off Ukraine. They have done everything both possible and impossible to maintain it within their orbit. They supported seperatist movements, financed pro-Kremlin parties and organisations as well as planted agents within Ukrainian intelligence and security forces, business networks and in the government altogether. The abundance of treacherous forces in Ukraine was always there, especially in eastern, southern and central regions, places where the Soviet Union ‘digested’ the population through Holodomor, collectivisation, repression and replaced them with newcomer ‘Homo Sovieticus’ from other parts of the Soviet Union.

Read more: Why the Russian Empire failed to assimilate Ukrainians in the XIX century

Nevertheless, Russia always paid special attention to Crimea, which gave it an extra sense of fanatical piety. This was a central focus for the Kremlin as the city of alleged Russian ‘glory’ of Sevastopol had a common Ukrainian-Russian naval military base. The peninsula itself was considered as ‘the promised land’ which must eventually return home – as often proclaimed by obsessive Russian propaganda over the years. Moreover, in 1992 the Russian parliament declared that the decree of the parliament of the Ukrainian SSR of 1954, which included the Crimean peninsula as part of the Ukrainian SSR, was illegitimate. Hence, it is no surprise that Crimea was always a conflicting and unstable issue. Considering that the Ukrainian government in Crimea always turned a blind eye on the actions of Kremlin’s agents locally, the Russian separatists in Crimea often felt at home and subsequently, were openly preparing for a Russian annexation of the peninsula for years. It is important to note that the Crimean Tatars were a counter factor to the pro-Russian forces in Crimea, alongside a small portion of non-russified Ukrainians there. The Crimean Tatars have gradually been returning from their painful deportation (initiated by Stalin in 1944) and tried to gain back control of their homeland from the ‘new’ Crimeans.

The first alarm bell that signalled the fact that Russia would never accept Ukrainian independence and would try to turn the direction of history in the opposite (past) direction, came in 2003. It was the year when the two ‘brotherly peoples’ celebrated the year of Russia in Ukraine and was the exact year when Russia ‘accidentally’ took over the Tuzla island in the Kerch strait, which belonged to Ukraine.

The takeover of Tuzla, which was sold to the public as the rescue of the Taman peninsula (which was allegedly being destroyed by the current of the Kerch strait), was merely an operation – a reconnaissance operation to test the focus of Ukrainians and their readiness to defend their sovereignty. A similar scenario was initiated many years later, as Putin’s ‘green men’ occupied Crimea. Despite the seeming lack of connection to the events in 2003, many forgot about the importance of the Tuzla island, as the conflict was quickly ‘resolved’. However, it would have been much smarter for Ukraine to start carefully preparing for a future conflict with its ‘brotherly nation’ and come to terms with the fact that such a conflict was imminent and obvious.

The timing of the conflict was also carefully chosen. The reputation of president Kuchma was destroyed due to the efforts of the FSB while his regime continued to decline in terms of popularity. After making it through the Cassette Scandal, the subsequent ‘Ukraine without Kuchma’ protests and illegally selling ‘Kolchuga’ radars to a sanctioned Iraq, Kuchma was left isolated by the international community. None of the leaders of any big countries wanted to deal with him. Evidently, the Kremlin was happy about this. Kuchma however, did not abandon his hopes of restoring his relationship with the West, and he was later successful, to some extent. He initiated a review of the non-bloc status of Ukraine. Under the ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme, Ukraine and NATO signed a memorandum of NATO support for Ukraine in its operations (9th of July 2002). Later, in November of that year, a common NATO-Ukraine action plan was also agreed. On the 7th of August of 2003, Ukrainian peacekeeping forces made their way to Iraq and Kuwait. In response, George Bush promised Ukraine his support in helping the country ‘on its way to European and Euro-atlantic political structures’.

Read more: In the hands of criminals, history is a deadly weapon

Such a turn of events was not part of the Kremlin’s plans. Two months later (29th of September 2003), Russia initiated its operation of taking over the island of Tuzla. Construction vehicles suddenly appeared on the shore of the Taman peninsula, as the workers then started constructing a dam in the direction of the island, so as to connect Tuzla with mainland Russia. Attempts from the Ukrainian side to inquire as to what was going on and then protest against Russia’s actions were simply ignored. Kuchma tried to call Putin, however, his call went unanswered. The head of Russia’s presidential administration Alexander Voloshin even threatened Ukraine with the bombing of Tuzla, and claimed to have said (off record) that the Kerch Strait would never belong to Ukraine, that it was a ‘common’ strait and any efforts to make it Ukrainian are senseless and unfriendly.

In the meantime, the dam from the Russian side was growing by 100 metres, daily. Ukrainian territorial waters were raided by FSB boats, Russian aviation was active in the skies, while loudspeakers in the area were discouraging anyone from obstructing the construction of the damb. When only a few hundred metres were left for the dam, Kuchma, who was on a diplomatic trip to Latin America, abruptly terminated his mission and came back to Ukraine. An operational general staff office was created, artillery boats were quickly sent to the Kerch strait, followed by ‘Grad’ missile systems. Ukrainian aviation and infantry forces were instructed to be in full combat readiness. Only after such bold actions, Putin finally found a way to ‘distract’ himself from other responsibilities and replied to Kuchma’s call. After their call, the dam construction was stopped, 100m short of its goal – the island of Tuzla.

How exactly Kuchma managed to deter Putin here is still unclear to this day. The Ukrainian government and its soldiers, unlike 2014 when there were no clear instructions from Kyiv as to what should be done in Crimea, acted swiftly in 2003. It is likely that the threat of shooting at the construction site of the dam worked on deterring Russia. Kuchma initiated this threat. Later, he confessed ‘I made a very serious announcement: if you continue, we will shoot. We will open fire. I publicly declared this. The circumstances forced me to do so’.

The Tuzla island provocation showed that Putin was not merely aiming to test Ukraine for its readiness to self-defence. Even though this was one of the main goals of his actions, there were other, more practical goals. Upon taking over Tuzla, Russia would not only be able to deploy troops there, but rather receive control of the fairway of the Kerch strait. Later, Dmitry Rogozin, then head of the parliamentary committee of international affairs, confessed that the reason was also financial. As Ukraine controlled the fairway, the fee spent on passing to the Azov sea for international merchant ships would go to Ukraine and not Russia. The approximate annual sum would be around 200 million USD. Even without taking over Tuzla, the Russians, in essence, managed to move the border 400m in. This meant that they still benefited – as they thereby received access to oil and gas fields, and therefore, the opportunity to pump out Ukrainian fossil fuels, which was exactly what they did.

After the termination of the Tuzla operation, the NATO-Ukraine rapprochement slowed down significantly. On the 15th of July 2004, after another Ukraine-NATO summit, Kuchma issued a decree that declared that Ukraine’s goal was not about joining NATO, but rather just working towards a close relationship between both NATO and the EU, as the main guarantors of security in Europe. It is quite possible then that Russia used the Tuzla conflict as a means of pressure on Ukraine to stop it from a possible integration with NATO and the EU. Some even claim that Putin deliberately caused the conflict for this matter. With a revived international reputation, Kuchma (who could be considered for a ‘third’ presidential term if deemed so popular) was now highly dependent on Putin. Even though the third presidential term never became a reality, the Kremlin recommended its own candidate – Viktor Yanukovych, and Kuchma subsequently worked for Yanukovych’s election.

Now, after many years, it is evident that Russia’s actions in Tuzla were a successful series of training for a future intervention in Ukraine. Many years later, a new ‘dam’ was constructed, this time it was an actual bridge connecting Russia and Crimea. Nevertheless, this story has not ended yet and can take a drastic turn at any point. And even the occupied Tuzla island, which has now been included in the Krasnodar Krai region in order for no one to suspect that it was ever part of Crimea and Ukraine. After all, it may return home to Ukraine, sooner rather than later. After all, time is unstoppable and today, it is definitely not on the crazy and imperial side of history.