Is Turkey turning its stern on the West in the Black Sea?

The regional power balance could change if Russia and Turkey carry their rapprochement in Syria to the Black Sea.

al-monitor The Russian navy's Tarantul-class corvette Ivanovets is escorted by a Turkish navy coast guard boat as it sets sail in the Bosporus on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Oct. 19, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.
Metin Gurcan

Metin Gurcan


Topics covered


Dec 15, 2016

Turkey recently hosted the fifth NATO anti-mining and anti-submarine exercise Blue Whale 2016 in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, with the participation of NATO members and 11 other countries, including Pakistan. At the end of the exercise, Pakistan’s Alamgir frigate, instead of returning home, sailed to the Black Sea to visit Russia’s major naval base at Novorossiysk on Dec. 8.

After the port visit, the Black Sea will witness the first joint Russia-Pakistan naval exercise, with the participation of Alamgir and the Russia navy. With Turkey's role as observer in the December exercises, it is time to ask: Is Turkey risking a deep crisis with the United States and NATO by moving toward military cooperation with Russia in the Black Sea? Can the Russian-Turkish rapprochement in Syria be carried over to the Black Sea?

Actually, the situation in the Black Sea has been considerably hot since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014. The United States deployed some warships in the Black Sea after the Russian move. NATO refused to recognize the annexation.

The United States has been trying to counterbalance Russia’s growing military and logistics activities in the Black Sea by using NATO.

In June 2016, NATO decided to boost its deterrence role in the Black Sea. That was followed by a Romanian proposal to form a NATO Black Sea fleet with the participation of Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Turkey and the United States. Russia interpreted this as an unacceptable attempt to form a permanent NATO fleet. Alexander Grushko, Russia’s permanent NATO representative, reacted at the time, saying, “I don’t really know what is going on. Of those countries, only Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have Black Sea coasts and fleets.” Russian officials warned that the Montreux Convention allows ships from other countries to stay in the Black Sea for only 21 days.

The question appears simple: Will Ankara want to exploit US-Russian competition over the Black Sea? Turkey’s answer came from Prime Minister Binali Yildirim during his Dec. 7 visit to Moscow: “Russia and Turkey, the strongest countries on the Black Sea coast, are going to develop all aspects of their relationship."

His reference to “all aspects” could well cover relations in defense and security fields. Moreover, both Russia and Turkey are very keen to develop a coastal highway that will link the eight countries on the Black Sea.

According to Ilker Guler, an expert on maritime navigation safety, Ankara has begun discussing the need to update its maritime navigation policy.

“Turkey wants to use the Black Sea not only for military objectives but also for economic openings," he said. "European rivers like the Dnieper, Dniester, Don and Volga [that flow] to the Black Sea mean a connection to Turkey’s Black Sea coast. This has significant economic value, for it will link the Black Sea basin to the Indian Ocean. One cannot forget that Turkish straits connect the Mediterranean to the Black Sea."

He noted that Russian-Turkish cooperation in the Black Sea halted and economic relations slowed significantly after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015. "Nevertheless, it is inevitable that Turkey, which has the longest coast on the Black Sea, and Russia, which needs Turkey’s cooperation to reach warm seas, will resort to diplomacy,” he told Al-Monitor.

Guler pointed out that Russia shares sovereignty over the Black Sea with Turkey and two other NATO members — Romania and Bulgaria — and also with Ukraine and Georgia, which both seek NATO membership.

“Russia-Turkey military rapprochement in the Black Sea will not be easy to achieve as long as it doesn’t include other coastal countries,” Guler added.

Turkey’s biggest trump card against Russia and the United States, Guler has noted, is the Montreux Convention, which regulates passage of civilian and military ships through Turkish straits. According to the 1936 treaty, Turkey can deny passage to any ship whose passengers or cargo might carry diseases such as cholera or plague. Turkey also has the right during wartime to stop any ship it suspects of carrying supplies to its enemies.

For example, because Syria has fired missiles that have reached Turkey, Ankara can block Russian logistics ships from carrying their cargo to Syria via the straits, by citing Syrian hostility. Also according to the convention, in times of war or when Turkey feels threatened by the likelihood of war, even civilian ships have to follow courses determined by Turkish officials. Today, if Turkey declares it feels threatened by the crisis in Syria, it can deny the United States and other NATO countries access to Black Sea coasts.

The Montreux Convention thus recognizes Turkey as the gatekeeper of the Black Sea.

Will Ankara move toward recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea? Will Ankara change its Black Sea policy? No doubt the United States and NATO are also wondering.

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