The tiny island at the centre of a geo-political storm, Snake Island, is just 35 kms from Romania, not much further from Ukraine. Originally Romanian territory, it was swallowed up by the Soviet Union, then given to Ukraine on the fall of communism.
Bucharest had always claimed Snake Island, but agreed to back down in return for NATO membership in 1998. However it now wants a share of the riches believed to lie beneath the waves.
The seabed around the island, some 12,000 square kilometres, is said to be rich in hydrocarbons, billions of cubic metres of gas, and millions of tonnes of oil. There is enough energy here to keep Romania and Ukraine somewhat energy self-sufficient for years.
It is not an immediately appealing place – largely deserted, with no fresh water and little agricultural land, Romania insisted the islet is just a rock, and therefore Ukraine could not claim extended maritime boundaries. Kiev, on the other hand, says it is a proper island, with its own economy driven by a military garrison and the lighthourse keepers and their families.
The legal battle between Bucharest and Kiev has intensified in the last few years, fuelled by energy demands as Romania and Ukraine try to lessen their dependence on Russia. Last month’s gas crisis merely highlighted their fears, pushing up the price of success or failure on Snake Island. The world economic downturn has pushed this small rock in the Black Sea to the forefront of the 21st century energy battle.