Specter of Russian military looms over Turkish canal project
In 2011, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his intention to construct what would be known as the Istanbul Canal as an alternative maritime route to the Bosphorus. Since then, the plan has been on hold due to the successive economic strains that Turkey has been under. However, with an election on the horizon, the issue has returned to the fore, most recently last month, when 104 retired Turkish navy admirals signed an online petition warning the government against amending the Montreux Convention that governs the Bosphorus strait. Though access to the Black Sea has historically concerned Russia and Turkey principally, a marked military buildup in the region has drawn international attention to the Istanbul Canal plan.
A new passageway to the Black Sea in parallel to the Bosphorus would be a huge infrastructural undertaking. The proposed 45 km sea-level waterway would connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and thus to the Mediterranean. Officially, the stated purpose of the project is to reduce the amount of maritime traffic in the Bosphorus and thereby minimize the associated risks and dangers. Each year, 41,000 vessels of all sizes pass through the strait, including 8,000 tankers carrying 145 million tons of crude oil. International pressure to increase the maritime traffic tonnage through the Turkish straits is growing, bringing with it significant security risks. It has been argued that the sustained increase of freight through the strait will eventually require a solution.
Estimated to cost between $12.7 billion and $25 billion, it is viewed by many as yet another mega-infrastructure project that the Turkish government has supported. Environmentalists, who fear the project will destroy Istanbul’s natural habitat and erode fresh water supplies, have failed to make their case sufficiently, as the government continues to seek to proceed with the project. In recent years, Turkey has built one of the world’s largest airports in Istanbul, an ambitious tunnel under the Bosphorus and one of the planet’s largest suspension bridges. Though popular with the public, these projects have made the domestic economic situation more acute; so much so that key Turkish banks have shied away from financing the canal scheme.
Despite the banks’ hesitance, the government remains confident that the project is suitably interesting to woo investors. Erdogan’s spokesman and adviser Ibrahim Kalin recently stated that the project would “certainly” attract investors and creditors when tenders are put out, especially given that the government expects the canal to provide an annual income of between $2 and $8 billion.
The canal could once again allow the entry of non-littoral states’ military vessels to the Black Sea.
Zaid M. Belbagi
With the project seeming likely to proceed, it is important to understand the military implications. Russia’s Defense Ministry last month announced that it had closed off navigation in parts of the Black Sea to foreign military and other official vessels until the end of October. This has led many in the international community to grow increasingly worried about troop build-ups in the region, especially in the context of the Montreux Convention.
Following the Ottoman Empire’s disastrous involvement in the First World War on the side of the Central Powers, Turkey’s peace was governed by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which demilitarized the Bosphorus and Dardanelles completely. To many Turks, the Montreux Convention, which was signed in 1936, was an extension of Lausanne. Despite allowing the Turkish army to reclaim its positions in this strategic area, it limited the number and tonnage of warships from non-Black Sea powers that could enter that sea via the Bosphorus.
The continued demilitarization of the straits, according to the agreement, allows civilian vessels to freely pass through based on certain regulations. This requirement and an obligation for states not bordering the Black Sea to notify Turkish authorities before passing through the straits was observed in 2008, when Turkey barred the passage of US vessels due to their noncompliance with the tonnage limitations. This status quo is, however, increasingly in question, as a new canal in Istanbul could once again allow the entry of non-littoral states’ military vessels to the Black Sea, including aircraft carriers and submarines.
Though the rules of the Montreux Convention give Turkey the upper hand it deserves due to its geographical position, they also contribute to stability and predictability in the Black Sea. A new canal would change this. Experts argue that construction of the Istanbul Canal would effectively undermine the convention’s rules. It may be the case that, for Turkey — whose president last month unequivocally stated, “We currently have neither any efforts nor intention to leave the Montreux Convention” — a new canal is simply an infrastructural necessity that provides lucrative economic prospects. However, given Russia’s military presence in the region, particularly after its annexation of the Crimea and the recent massing of two armies and three airborne units for “combat training exercises,” plans for the new canal are geopolitically very important.
Historically, Turkey has closed the straits to Russian military shipping. However, the days of the Black Sea being an “Ottoman lake” have long since passed. It is now the growing specter of the Russian military that should concern international observers about future access to the Black Sea.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid