Russia-Ukraine standoff tests Turkey in the Black Sea

The ongoing crisis between Ukraine and Russia in the Azov Sea was an accident waiting to happen. On Nov. 25, the Russian coast guard in the Kerch Strait attacked and captured two Ukrainian naval vessels along with a tugboat accompanying them. 

The Ukrainian crew was taken to Moscow and put on trial. Russian authorities blame Ukraine for staging what they say was a provocation. For Kiev as well as for the West, the episode underscores Russia’s intentions to stake a claim over the whole of the Azov Sea.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 made the Kerch Strait, linking Azov to the Black Sea, a de facto internal waterway for Russia. Having built a 17-km long road and railway bridge across the strait, Russia is carrying out inspections of commercial vessels.

Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk have lost much business as a result, as well as because the bridge’s low clearance keeps large vessels away from the sea. Kyiv’s navy is trying to push back. Yet it is no a match to the Russian Black Sea fleet which seized two-thirds of Ukraine’s ships when it swallowed Crimea. The skirmish in the Kerch Strait is Moscow’s way of showing the Ukrainians who is in control.  

The tensions next door put Turkey in an uncomfortable position. It is one of the few countries that can safely claim to be a partner of both Ukraine and Russia. Overseeing an unprecedented turn towards Russia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has done his best to develop ties with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Turkey and Ukraine are united in denouncing the annexation of Crimea. They are committed to upgrading commercial links and even launch joint defence projects.  But the troubles in the Azov Sea are hurting grain and metal exports to Turkey as well as resulting in losses for Turkish shipping companies.

In an ideal world, Erdoğan would not have to choose between Moscow and Kiev and work with both. His first move was to make phone calls to both Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to share his concerns and call for a diplomatic solution. Whether either of them listened is highly questionable. One thing is certain; if Poroshenko seconded Ukraine’s naval commander Ihor Voronchenko’s request for Turkey to block the Bosporus to Russian ships, he would not have got very far.

At a broader level, the standoff in the Azov Sea is a reminder of Turkey’s loss of status in the Black Sea. In the last decade, when NATO expanded to include Romania and Bulgaria, Russia and Turkey forged a partnership aimed at keeping the alliance away and the Black Sea as a sort of condominium between the two of them. In addition, Turkish policymakers feared a potential clash between NATO and Russia in which case they would have to bear a disproportional part of the cost.

That explains Ankara’s cautious reaction to the 2008 war in Georgia. It delayed the entry of two U.S. medical ships through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, insisting on the strict interpretation of the 1936 Montreux Convention setting limits on military vessels from countries outside the Black Sea littoral.

But while Russia appreciated and profited from Turkey’s pro-status quo stance, it had no qualms about recasting the balance of power in the area in its favor when the opportunity presented itself. The annexation of Crimea and the subsequent militarisation of the peninsula along with the build-up of Russia’s naval capabilities (e.g. the deployment of ships and submarines equipped with high-precision cruise missiles) in effect ended the Russo-Turkish duopoly. Facing Russian deployments on two more of its borders, in Armenia and Syria, Turkey is at a clear disadvantage. 

Turkey’s choice has been to bandwagon with Russia but also hedge. Formally Erdoğan is opposed to the Western policy of containing Putin. In practice, however, Turks endorse NATO’s “tailored forward presence” in the Black Sea aimed at drawing red lines and discouraging Moscow from using its military muscle to bully the alliance’s members.

Turkey is a contributor to a multinational brigade deployed in Romania. Warships from NATO members have been rotating in the Black Sea more frequently than before 2014. Turkey might be against institutionalising the alliance’s presence, e.g. through a permanent naval force as proposed by Romania in 2016. Yet NATO’s growing footprint is of direct benefit to its interests.

That is why Turkey is very much adhering to NATO’s common line on the Azov Sea crisis. At this week’s foreign ministerial meeting in Brussels, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu backed an allied call to Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors. The United States has now notified Turkey that it is preparing to send a warship from the Sixth Fleet stationed in the Mediterranean in the Black Sea. The move signals to Russia that its actions have consequences but is not a major escalatory step. Turkish authorities cannot deny entry of the ship as long as the terms of the Montreux Convention are observed. However, Erdoğan will go on pretending he is a disinterested third party and could possibly act is a mediator in the standoff. The former is partly true. The latter is unlikely.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.