The maritime threat to Turkey-Russia ties

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met last week in Ankara with Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which Turkey has supported militarily in its fight against General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA).

Presumably among the talking points at the summit was Turkey’s stated desire to soon begin drilling for oil and gas off Libya’s coast, fulfilling the intent of the maritime borders deal it signed with the GNA in November and underscoring Ankara’s belief, in the wake of key victories on the ground, that the Libyan conflict has all but ended.

On Monday, Turkey selected seven blocks for exploratory drilling in the eastern Mediterranean off the Libyan coast.

“I know a lot of success has been made in the fight against Haftar, but there’s still a lot of instability in Libya,” maritime affairs analyst and diplomatic advisor Paul Pryce told Ahval in a podcast, adding that it’s probably too soon for Turkey to start a drilling operation.

He pointed out that Turkey had also been extending itself in northern Syria, where it has mounted three incursions and now oversees significant chunks of Syrian territory, and launched several drilling operations off the coast of Cyprus in the past year, which Greece, the European Union and the Republic of Cyprus see as illegal.

Turkey has also beefed up its military presence in Somalia, which former European Union ambassador to Turkey Marc Pierini described last week as part of a more aggressive Turkish foreign policy in the wake of the pandemic.

For Pryce, though, the maritime borders deal, which hands Turkey vastly more maritime territory and has been challenged by Greece and the EU and widely questioned by legal analysts, might be mainly a domestic political gesture.

“You have all these adventures overseas and maybe all you get on occasion are bills and body bags coming back, so there’s a desire to have some kind of value extracted from these engagements,” he said, adding that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been seen as being in trouble during an economic crisis following last year’s municipal electoral losses.

“Perhaps this economic incentive is something you can bring back to the voters,” he said, “and of course maybe as well to show to other players on the international stage that we’ve carved our sphere our influence.”

Key among those players is Russia, which has appeared to increase its support of Haftar in recent weeks, particularly with the deployment of more than a dozen warplanes to Libya. “Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favour in Libya,” U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, who leads the United States’ African Command Centre, said last week.

Libya is just one of a handful of touchy subjects for Ankara and Moscow. Russia backs Syrian President Bashar Assad in his stand-off with Turkey in Syria’s Idlib province, where Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a March ceasefire. A report last week found that in the last two months Turkey has been importing more gas from Azerbaijan than from Russia, despite the two launching the $7.8 billion TurkStream pipeline in January.

The two appear to be inching toward an information war, with Sputnik Turkiye running several stories this year that attacked Turkish views, and Ankara launching a Russian-language version of its state broadcaster TRT in apparent response.

Pryce pointed to another potential sore spot: Turkey’s de facto oversight of Russian naval movement and commercial shipping from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean thanks to the Montreux Convention, which ensures Turkish control of the Bosphorus, Dardanelles and the Marmara Sea, collectively known as the Turkish Straits.

During times of peace, the convention, which Pryce wrote about last week for the Center on International Maritime Security, ensures the free passage of commercial vessels while putting significant restraints on the naval vessels of countries that have no Black Sea coastline. Russia would like to tighten the Montreux restrictions to further limit the U.S. and NATO presence in the Black Sea, which has increased in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent conflict with Ukraine.

By dispatching an increasing number of warships and seizing the Kerch Strait, which provides sole access to the Sea of Azov and key Ukrainian ports along its coast, including Mariupol, Russia has advanced “Moscow’s big geo-strategic goal of turning the Black Sea into a Russian-controlled lake,” Luke Coffey, director of U.S. think tank the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Centre, wrote last week for Defense One. 

Turkey has largely accepted these acts of Russian aggression.

“When it comes to Crimea, there’s a deafening silence,” said Pryce, who thought the bloody wars between the Russian and Ottoman empires in the 17th and 18th centuries had shaped Ankara’s position.

“It’s a part of Turkish foreign policy since the liberation of the Turkish Republic, just avoiding conflict with Russia, maybe even to an extent appeasing Russia,” he said. “Russia has been vastly expanding its hold on the Black Sea and Turkey still has what it has, there’s no expansion of Turkish presence or control over the Black Sea. At a certain point you have to say, ‘Hey, this is getting a little uncomfortable’.”

That point may arrive soon. If its proposed Istanbul Canal were to be built, Turkey could potentially void the Montreux Convention and take absolute control of Black Sea access.

Pryce said this would increase Russian-Turkish tensions, mainly because so much Russian oil and gas passes through the Bosphorus, and could lead to a Turkish warship staring down a Russian warship off the coast of Istanbul in the not-so-distant future. At the same time, Ankara would also be well positioned to help Moscow.

“Any future NATO operations in the Black Sea could be potentially vetoed by Turkey if they didn’t like what was being done,” said Pryce.

Russian officials have expressed fears that Turkey will void the Montreux Convention as soon as it completes the canal, which according to the convention would necessitate a conference of all key players to discuss possible alterations. But such a gathering would not ensure consensus.

“Turkey could still be obstructionist when it comes to those talks and not support a renewal or kind of a Montreux 2.0,” said Pryce, adding that Russia and Turkey have in the past five years often found themselves in “this halfway point between war and peace”.

This was highlighted in Libya on Monday, as the Turkish-backed GNA sent its forces into cities defended by Russian mercenaries and the LNA, leading to the cancellation of al-Serraj’s planned meeting with Russian officials.

Pryce argued that their shared self-interests in terms of oil and gas and gaining leverage from the conflicts in Libya and Syria and from the Turkish Straits question could move the two sides toward a diplomatic solution, as it did in Idlib. He also thought Putin, despite clear military superiority, should be wary of all-out war against Erdoğan.

“Moscow would be deluding itself to think any conflict with Turkey would be a cake walk, that basically seizing greater control of the Black Sea is no problem at all, given that they’ve had difficulty taking over even Mariupol and the southeast of Ukraine,” he said.