Turkey’s difficult choice on stopping Russian ships in the Black Sea

Of Monica Ricci Sargentini

Cavusoglu to CNN: “This is not a military operation, it is officially a state of war”. But for now Ankara has not made a decision. The interests at stake

The Russian invasion of Ukraine puts a strain on bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia. Until today Ankara had tried to keep a difficult balance between its membership of NATO, its support for Ukraine and its willingness to maintain good relations with Moscow. Now though the question of the passage of Russian warships to the Black Sea across the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus puts Recep Tayyip Erdogan in serious trouble. Indeed, Ankara has the option of closing off access to warships in the event of an open conflict. And yesterday Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a Twitter message for his support hinting that Turkey stopped Putin’s ships. However, things are not clear at all.

“This is not a military operation, it’s officially a state of war “ Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said yesterday in an interview with Cnn Turk, ensuring that Turkey will apply to the letter the 1936 Montreux Convention which regulates naval transits through the Turkish straits. For the moment, however, there is no official decision. In any case Russian warships would still have the right to cross Dardanelles and the Bosphorus to re-enter their bases on the Black Sea. This is established by the Montreux agreement itself in article 19. And this would allow Erdogan to save goats and cabbages by supporting Kiev without unleashing the Russian president’s wrath. Provided, however, that Moscow does not take advantage of it: “There should be no abuse – Cavusoglu explained to CNN – A Russian warship should not participate in warfare after declaring that he crosses the Bosphorus to return to base ยป.

Russia often uses the Turkish Strait to maneuver between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Six warships and a Russian submarine passed by in February, officially to make “explorations” in Ukrainian waters. Turkey has close relations with Ukraine and supported its position on Crimea, which was militarily annexed by Russia in 2014. In the region resides an important community of Turkish origin and language, the Tatars. Ankara has also supplied military drones to Kiev and signed defense industrial cooperation agreements.

On the contrary, Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides on different geopolitical issues, from the Caucasus to Libya, passing through Syria, where Moscow did not hesitate to bomb Turkish troops in February 2022, killing 33. But at the same time, Putin and Erdogan are allies in many areas as the Turkish Stream, the pipeline for the transport of Russian gas to Europe and Turkey or the construction, in progress, of the first nuclear power plant in the country. We must not forget that the Sultan has bought the Russian S400 anti-aircraft defense system making the US go on a rampage after expelling Turkey from the group of countries participating in the latest F-35 program. Ankara is also very dependent on the Russian market for the arrival of fruit and vegetables. In recent months, the Moscow authorities have regularly blocked tons of food at the border under various pretexts. At the end the tourism issue: last year 4.5 million Russians visited the country of the Crescent, a fundamental influx for the Turkish economy.

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