Turkey’s decision to limit Russian warships in its straits may be too late, ship spotter says

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Ship spotter Yoruk Isik in Istanbul.Janice Dickson/The Globe and Mail

From his terrace in Istanbul, Yoruk Isik has a clear view of the Bosphorus Strait, where he observes and tracks ships passing through one of the world’s busiest waterways.

“International events and trade happen right in front of me,” he said on a cold, windy day. “We are only 100 metres away from the European shore of Bosphorus, and probably 350 metres away from where the ships are passing.”

The Bosphorus is a key link between Asia and Europe, connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which in turns joins with the Aegean and Mediterranean through the Dardanelles Strait. On Sunday morning, merchant traffic was moving to the southwest, perhaps to continue to the Red Sea, Arabian Peninsula, or west toward France or even all the way to the United States.

“We are at the beginning, so what we see from here might go all the way around the world,” he said.

These days, it’s what Mr. Isik isn’t seeing that’s notable.

Last week, a historic decision was made: Turkey called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a war, paving the way for the country to implement parts of the Montreux Convention, a 1936 international pact that allows Turkey to limit the transit of warships in the Turkish straits when there is war in the region or it feels threatened. Both the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles are now closed to military traffic, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared.

“Normally we see military ships here everyday,” said Mr. Isik, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a geopolitical analyst in Istanbul where he runs the Bosphorus Observer, a maritime consultancy.

Since he began ship spotting “obsessively” 10 years ago, he has documented thousands of vessels. More than 40,000 pass each year through the Bosphorus, including 200 warships. “I have full awareness of where they are,” Mr. Isik said.

He grew up watching ships on the Bosphorus, drawn to the pastime because he likes asking questions and solving mysteries, such as finding out what ships are carrying, and whether they are involved in unethical or illegal activity. He tries to document every ship that passes, sharing it online for open-source use. From animal rights to military manoeuvres, “whatever is important to you, you can monitor shipping activities,” he said.

“I like Russian affairs very much, so my focus is on Russian affairs.”

The Montreux Convention, Mr. Isik explained, was brought in to give Turkey control of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles: “The treaty was designed so there are no surprises.” Black Sea countries have to inform Turkey eight days ahead of transit, and non Black-Sea countries have to give notice 15 days in advance.

However, Russia has continued to pose a constant threat by trying to control the Black Sea and turn it “into a Russian lake,” he added, most recently by arming occupied Crimea.

Mr. Isik said he believes Turkey closed the straits to all warships, rather than targeting only Russia and Ukraine, to perhaps give favour to the Russians, or to give them an opportunity to reverse course without being singled out.

Turkey’s decision to limit Russian warships in its straits may be too late, ship spotter says 2

The view from ship spotter Yoruk Isik’s home.Janice Dickson/The Globe and Mail

Under the convention, ships belonging to the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet can pass a single time to permanently return to their home bases. Russia currently has five ships in the Mediterranean that belong to the fleet, Mr. Isik said: a powerful guided missile frigate, two new electric diesel submarines carrying the same type of caliber cruise missiles, a mine-sweeper and an offshore tug.

But despite being allowed to pass, he doesn’t think they will because it could cause tension with Mr. Erdogan, who spoke adamantly about the straits. “I’m thinking they are trying to not push Turkey further.”

Still, Mr. Isik said the closing will become unacceptable to Russia in the medium to long term because the Bosphorus is vital for its military campaign in Syria and power projection in the Mediterranean.

For now, based on his observations, Mr. Isik believes Russia already has what it needs to wage its war from the sea. He said they brought landing ships under the guise that they were running naval exercises, including ships from other fleets.

“They are treating the Black Sea one more time, as fully under their control. So this is an unacceptable situation for all countries.”

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Source: Globe an Mail

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