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    Recent developments at the Black Sea: Türkiye - Ukraine - Russia

    N. Murat Ersavcı27 March 2024 - Okunma Sayısı: 903

    Two years have passed since Russia's attack on Ukraine. Despite many disadvantages and at a great cost, Ukranians are courageously defending their country in order to take their place among free nations.

    During this period, we have witnessed Türkiye's significant efforts to stop the ongoing war. Recently, during Ukrainian President Zelensky’s brief visit to Türkiye, he met with President Erdoğan and conveyed his views on the course of the war. Türkiye has been supporting Ukraine right from the beginning against Russia's unjust aggression. It has comdemned on the international stage and continues to do so  the decade long Russian occupation of Crimea. Türkiye will not recognize the illegal Russian sovereignty over these territories.

    Moreover, there are significant implications in closing the Turkish Straits to the vessels of war of belligerent parties by implementing the Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, as well as efforts to prevent escalation. These efforts apply to both non-littoral countries and Russia (i.e. Black Sea fleet), by not allowing the passage of vessels of war to the Black Sea.

    Russian Black Sea fleet is among those paying a heavy price for Putin's strategic mistake. Indeed, developments in the Black Sea led to a significant gain for Türkiye. Russia's withdrawal from the "Grain Corridor" agreement in July 2023 changed the situation. The new safe route established for ships carrying cargo from Ukraine reaching the Istanbul Strait through the territorial waters of Romania and Bulgaria, has taken the threat emanating from the Russian Navy largely out of the equation. Meanwhile, Türkiye has initiated a task force with its Nato allies, Romania and Bulgaria, for clearing mines in the Black Sea.

    Despite Ukraine's navy being deemed insignificant at this stage of the war due to the insufficient number of vessels, it has achieved significant gains at sea. By deploying Western-supplied cruise missiles and domestically produced drones using creative Technologies, it has inflicted major losses and damages to the Russian navy and port facilities stationed in "Sevastopol" and continues to do so. According to verified data from open sources on these asymmetric naval battles conducted by Ukraine, Russia's losses have been identified as 21 ships and 1 submarine from March 2020 to December 2023. Considering that Russia's entire Black Sea fleet consists of 80 ships (excluding small-scale coastal patrol vessels), the damage caused by these losses becomes even more apparent. This development seems to have led to the withdrawal of the Russian navy towards the eastern part of the Black Sea to the port of "Novorossiysk" located 600 km away.

    Furthermore, the Black Sea carries great importance for Türkiye in terms of energy pipelines and natural gas drilling activities. Therefore, strict rules are applied to also prevent warships of other countries, as well as Russia, from passing through the Straits to the Black Sea ports. It is a fact that Russia has made several unsuccessful attempts to breach these regulations. Naturally, the same practice applies to the United States and other NATO allies outside the Black Sea. Thus, the status quo at the Black Sea is maintained, preventing possible further pressures from Russia.

    The historical rivalry between Turkey and Russia continues in the Black Sea as well.  These waters, which previously was considered to be a Russian lake following the unjust annexation of Crimea has now changed. Although Ukraine does not have a significant naval force, its successful erosion of the Russian navy, somewhat strengthened Türkiye's hand. Under these circumstances it would not be wrong to say that this situation led to the Turkish navy becoming increasingly dominant in the Black Sea. Considering the modern surface vessels and next-generation submarines produced within the scope of Türkiye's MILGEM project, it is reasonable to assume that these developments are also to the benefit of our Allies. Speaking of the MILGEM project, Türkiye is currently building two MILGEM class anti-submarine corvettes for the Ukrainian Navy under a project initiated prior to the onset of war, in fact, President Zelensky inspected the ships at the Istanbul shipyards during his visit to Türkiye on March the 8th.

    One might wonder: Will the closure of the straits to certain type of warships continue, or will Russia, whose navy is increasingly squeezed, oppose Türkiye's growing dominance in the Black Sea. However, considering that the Russian navy has not performed as well as expected in the war, it would not be misleading to suggest that the current status quo will continue.

    On the other hand, we know that Türkiye's allies, especially the US, would like to deploy naval forces in the Black Sea in support of Ukraine. Such a request, for humanitarian purposes  was made back in 2008 during the conflicts initiated by Russia against Georgia. But Türkiye did not find it appropriate for warships exceeding the tonnage limits set by the Montreux Convention to pass through the Straits. In any case, one should assume that the fact steps such as those would increase tension in the Black Sea and are avoided thanks to Türkiye’s efforts. This should be reassuring also to our Allies.

    Moreover, given the intertwined historical relations between Türkiye and Russia, also considering President Putin's frequent expressions of Russian imperial aims, it should not be surprising to all parties that Turkey values the preservation of the status quo in the Black Sea.