2018-12-08

Turkey is increasing its military presence in the Black Sea


The only border between Turkey and Russia passes through the Black Sea. Events on one shore of the sea, reaching the opposite edge, sooner or later cause a response. Strengthening the Russian presence in the Black Sea can not but bother the Turkish leadership. As a member of NATO, Turkey is trying to meet the goals of the organization in the region, but as the largest neighbor and important trade partner of Russia, it is trying to pursue an independent policy vis-a-vis its northern neighbor. It is thus important in this light to assess the newly announced plans of Ankara for the construction of a naval base on the Black Sea coast.

The ninth logistics base of the Turkish fleet will be located near the large Black Sea city of Trabzon. It is planned to deploy 400 military and 200 civilian personnel to service frigates and submarines on its facilities. Although the decision was not directly connected with the recent Ukrainian provocation in the Kerch Strait, it was made in 2014 and possibly influenced by the events in the Crimea . The construction of the object, moreover, fits into the logic of the development of the Turkish Navy, which seeks to become a leading regional maritime power in 15-20 years.

Turkey’s focus on developing its own defense capabilities in the maritime domains is being made against the background of unsuccessful diplomatic efforts of recent years to create a regional cooperation mechanism in the Black Sea. The Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization since its inception in 1999 has not became an incentive for coastal states to move to closer political cooperation. The process is also hampered by the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe, during which the new members eventually lost their desire to solve the problems existing in the Black Sea through mutual consultation, including with Russia.

On the other hand, strengthening of the Russian presence in the Black Sea in recent years also makes Turkey increasingly think about modernizing its own fleet and logistics infrastructure along the shore. Russia's increasing share of modern naval and rocket weapons and changing the balance of forces in the Black Sea makes Turkey look for an opportunity to keep the unfolding process within the framework of predictability.

Obviously, the view of Ankara is today directed primarily towards NATO. In mid-2016, at the peak of the Russian-Turkish crisis, Turkey’s concerns about the Russian presence were expressed by Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who, addressing the NATO Secretary General, said, “the Black Sea has become almost a lake in Russia. If we do not act now, history will not forgive us”.

Several factors force Ankara not to participate in the alliance’s strategy for containing Russia in the region. First, economic cooperation with Russia is becoming strategic, and it remains non-politicized, in contrast to Turkey’s relations with Western countries. Secondly, the participation of Turkey in the conflict with Russia on the side of NATO can not only turn the Turkish territories into a priority goal of the Russian nuclear strike, but also would serve to initiate a series of conflicts on the borders of Turkey in the Balkans and the Caucasus with unpredictable consequences for Turkey’s statehood.

Turkey is not interested in the revision of the Montreux Convention on the status of the straits, which is indirectly and directly sought by the United States. The Convention is a powerful tool in the hands of Turkey, securing sovereignty over the most important international maritime passage. But, even being a member of NATO, Turkey tried not to use a similar trump card against the largest maritime power in the Black Sea of today - Russia. The passage of Russian ships in most cases is not a problem,  even with different views on the classes and armament load of ships. The Bosphorus and the Dardanelles remained open and in the period of dangerous cooling of the Russian-Turkish relations in 2015-2016. At the same time, in the days of the Georgian crisis in August 2008, Turkey decided to consult with the Russian side before making a decision on the passage of US ships.

It is obvious that Turkey tries to keep an independent line of conduct towards Russia, and Western countries are forced to reckon with this. Over the past 10 years, Turkey has become an ambitious player aimed at expanding influence in neighboring regions, primarily in the Middle East. Dynamic foreign policy in the region confronts Ankara with the interests of Western partners. In such conditions, Turkish diplomacy seeks to use its geopolitical advantages in bargaining with the West to advance its narrow national interests.

The question of Turkey’s acquiring Russian S-400 air defense missile systems is a good example of this: Turks are ready to use the Russian card as part of their own relations with Western allies. Having such an obstinate partner is unusual for the United States. In addition, the security architecture of the US-led military alliance relies on the participation of Turkey, which further complicates bilateral relations. The pressure on the political leadership of Turkey may potentially put under question the presence of American troops in the region, but it also may bring to the agenda the fate of NATO’s strategic military facilities. Thus, the rejection of Turkey's specific demand to recognize its ambitions seems impossible.

Probably, the United States, as part of its confrontation with Russia in the Black Sea, is following a policy of expanding its strategic alternatives. With the increased independence of Turkey from Western interests, values and narratives and Ankara's apparent reluctance to participate in the policy of putting pressure on its neighbor along the coast, the US military is developing relations with other states in the region.

In 2005, Bulgaria and Romania signed an agreement on the establishment of US naval bases on the Black Sea coast. Now Romania is the main contender for the replacement of Turkey as the main anti-Russian component of the American containment strategy. In 2010, Bucharest actively participated in deploying US missile defense elements on its territory. In July 2016, Romania launched an initiative to create a unified NATO naval group in the Black Sea. Although the plans were not supported by all participants, it was obvious that the importance of Turkey in the framework of NATO activity in the Black Sea is gradually decreasing.

Ankara’s decision to build a logistics base near Trabzon is intended to demonstrate to the Western allies that Turkey does not intend to leave the Black Sea. On the contrary, the country's participation in important projects, such as, for example, the Turkish Stream, implies a more focused attention of the country to the situation in the region. The preservation of military parity in the sea has a direct impact on the political situation in the so-called Greater Black Sea Coast - the regions of the Caucasus and the Balkans. The development of the defense potential, part of which will be the new logistics base of the Turkish Navy, is aimed at preserving Turkey’s leading naval force in NATO. This means that Russia will have to develop relations with Turkey, which has repeatedly demonstrated its positive role in reducing anti-Russian sentiment in the alliance, on the basis of mutual respect. 

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