Tuzla, in the Kerch Strait, was the first hybrid Russian operation against Ukraine, setting in motion a train of events that resulted in 2022’s full-scale invasion. It also established a pattern of Russian interference in other neighboring countries.
Looking back, it was badly under-appreciated by the outside world, and its significance was missed.
The Tuzla crisis became a test of Ukrainian readiness to defend its territory, and the unwillingness of the international community to confront the Kremlin. The hybrid actions used, including misinformation, the misuse of local authorities, creeping annexation backed by military build-ups, and even nuclear threats, were all seen later in South Ossetia, Crimea, Donbas, and in the full-scale invasion of February 2022.
On 29 September 2003, without any notification or negotiations, Russian workers started building a dam to connect the Russian shore near Taman to the Ukrainian island.
Each day they added 150 meters. Any requests for an explanation from Russia were met with prevarication and the claim that it was the responsibility of local officials.
President Vladimir Putin ignored calls from his Ukrainian counterpart President Leonid Kuchma on the subject. But as soon as Kuchma left the country for a visit to Latin America, the construction intensified.
Just as in 2022, it was border staff who were first to recognize and face the threat. But, while in 2022 they and the leadership in Kyiv were psychologically prepared to fight and confront Russia, this was not true in 2003.
The political leadership, including Russian proxies such as Viktor Medvedchuk, was not ready to acknowledge Russian aggression or the consequences that would have flowed from it.
It was also difficult for the military. General Mykhailo Koval, deputy head of the Border Service of Ukraine, and General Nikolai Ignatov, commander of the Russian 7th Assault Division had studied together and served together in Azerbaijan in Soviet times.
Koval and his team were faced with the question of whether they would shoot Russians. The answer was yes, and Kuchma confirmed in a telephone conversation with Putin that Ukraine was willing to use force.
The Kremlin questioned whether the island belonged to Ukraine, despite the mutual recognition of borders in 1991 and 1997, while TV stations stoked anti-Ukrainian hysteria. The madness reached its peak when a TV poll found 82% of Russians said Tuzla was more important than good neighborly relations.
Russian militant groups from Krasnodar had previously traveled to the island to persuade the tiny local population to “return to the bosom of Mother Russia”.
But after the presidential call and Ukraine’s stated willingness to defend itself, negotiations started in Moscow.
The outcome was the Azov Sea Treaty of December 24, 2003. It was a clear Russian victory, despite the fact Ukraine retained control of the island. The document also had a deeper significance — negotiated in just two months, it laid the groundwork for future threats to Ukraine.
The main clauses made the Sea of Azov a “shared sea” for Russia and Ukraine, giving free passage without notification for both states via the Kerch Strait, but barring entry to foreign naval ships without approval from both sides. Not accidentally, NATO vessels were shut out.
The Treaty’s conditions enabled the Russian Navy to monitor all vessels traveling to Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea and greatly eased the 2018 attack on the Ukrainian Navy.
It also allowed Russian ships to sail close to the Ukrainian shore, even after the war in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and created favorable conditions for the subsequent 2022 occupation of the Azov Sea ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.
Putin always chose the timing of his operations with care. He not only sought the cover of big events that distract media attention, like Russia’s intervention in Georgia during the 2008 Olympics, but also chose times when the attention of the international community was focused elsewhere, or it was unwilling to support his victims.
Just as he assumed in 2022 that the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and elections in Germany and France, would make the West reluctant to help Ukraine, so in 2003, he was confident that the partial isolation of Ukraine’s President Kuchma would mean Western partners would be unwilling to intervene quickly.
And indeed, the international community’s reaction to Tuzla was weak. It was seen as a minor incident between two states, more of a misunderstanding than a land grab.
The Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 and intended to guarantee that Russia would not attack Ukraine, was not invoked, despite a clear attempt to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Despite the failures and disadvantages of the Azov Sea Treaty, Ukraine demonstrated in 2003 that Russia could be stopped if its violations and bullying were firmly confronted and not accommodated. It continues to do so in 2023.
Hanna Shelest PhD is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She is the Director of Security Programmes at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” and Editor-in-chief at UA: Ukraine Analytica. Before this, she served for more than 10 years as a Senior Researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Ukraine, Odesa Branch.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.