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Why Turkey is key to the Russia-Ukraine-EU crisis

With its historical presence, special bonds and future projects, it is Turkey that will be holding the key to peace in the Black Sea in the near future

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

An overwhelming majority of NGOs and analysts have led the diplomats of the EU and the U.S. into playing a detrimental role in the status of Ukraine. The EU was looking for a western-facing Ukraine -- leaving Russia behind -- and failed to take into consideration that Sevastopol in Crimea was the only door the Russian Navy has to the Black Sea and “the Bear” would fight for this with its life.

Now those who supported the internal conflicts in Ukraine are holding meeting after meeting and have come to realize they have nothing left other than threatening Russia with sanctions. Russia’s economy mainly depends on natural resources extraction, most of which is sold to the EU. Sanctions – if applied – would only further damage European economies and Russia could end up exporting its rich natural resources to the rapidly-rising East.

Ukraine is a hub for the East-West corridor and has been subjected to occupation and pillage due to Asia-Europe disputes throughout its history.

The EU certainly did not pull Ukraine so forcefully to its side thinking the Ukrainians would excel in democracy, art and science and therefore contribute to a great extent to the culture of the European Union. They did so because the thirsty EU economies needed at least a part of this vital country to have control over the Russian energy corridor to Europe.

The EU also knew that a shattered Ukraine, stripped from its geopolitical importance, would not mean much to either Ukrainians or Europeans.

This should lead us to think of, and take precautions for, a potential axial shift dispute in the Balkans, a new conflict to spread to the coasts of the Black Sea, like the one in the Persian Gulf. If the crisis gets bigger, the Black Sea will become a militarized region, the center for a Russia-West conflict, and countries in the region will begin arming themselves to the teeth: Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine will turn into vast military encampments.

Here we have to turn to the country which has the longest Black Sea coasts and controls the sea traffic in the Black Sea: Turkey. Turkey constitutes the basic axis of the South East Gas Corridor (SGC) along with Azerbaijan and Israel is getting involved in the international energy business through Turkey. Iran is also insisting on joining this energy axis.

Turkey is the only country, which can diplomatically invite all these diverse players to the same table. The diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel has quickly subsided and is on the road to being completely resolved. Azerbaijan already calls Turkey a brother nation.

Turkey has been strikingly successful in bringing Iran to the diplomatic table concerning serious international matters such as the Syria crisis, the Iranian-Western nuclear deal and relationships in the Gulf region. Turkey is the only country where both Iranian and Israeli citizens can travel without a visa and enjoy their stay without being concerned about security risks.

Montreux Convention

Is Turkey holding the cards to solving simply a potential energy crisis? Not at all, it is far more than that. Turkey controls the only passageway to the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits are the only waterways connecting the Black Sea to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas and to the oceans through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Gibraltar.

Since 1936, passage through the Turkish Straits has been governed by the Montreux Convention. Freedom of transit and navigation in the Straits is regulated in the Convention based on discrimination regarding merchant vessels, vessels of war, and aircraft.

The delicate balances in the Black Sea right now heavily depend on Turkey being the calm, sane and wise rational actor in the escalating tensions. One needs to feel the moral dynamics, understand economic forces, recognize back-door diplomatic corridors and study the history of a region perfectly and be ready to accept the true driving force behind a community, no matter how controversial it may be to their personal beliefs.

Ceylan Ozbudak

Other distinctions are dependent on circumstances: times of peace, when Turkey is not a belligerent during a time of war, when Turkey is a belligerent in a time of war, and situations when Turkey considers itself threatened with the imminent danger of war.

In addition to this, in times of peace, the total number and the maximum aggregate tonnage of all foreign naval forces that may pass through the Turkish Straits are limited to 9 and 15,000 tons respectively. This means aircraft carriers cannot under any circumstance pass through the Turkish Straits.

The maximum aggregate tonnage that non-Black Sea countries may have in this body of water is 45,000 tons. The maximum aggregate tonnage of the vessels of war that one non-Black Sea country may have in the sea is 30,000 tons and vessels of war belonging to non-Black Sea states cannot stay more than 21 days in the Black Sea. Advance notification must be given to Turkey of all passages through the Turkish Straits. The notification time is eight days for vessels of war belonging to Black Sea states and 15 days for those of other countries.

According to the aforementioned clauses in the Montreux Treaty, even small American or European war ships cannot linger in the Black Sea more than 21 days and they cannot just show up at the door without prior permit. Even though the U.S. asked Turkey to violate the treaty to pressure Russia regarding Ukraine, Turkey turned down this offer.

The reason why we are seeing an American warship in the Black Sea right now is because the ship was declared to need repairs after its 21 day permit had expired. Turkey sought to keep the Black Sea demilitarized since 1936.

Following the South Ossetia War in August 2008, the Turkish Straits again became an issue of concern for the US when Turkey denied passage to US warships seeing to transit the Straits, which prevented the tensions from escalating even further between the US and Russia.

Istanbul Canal is the key to Black Sea power struggle

There is one other factor in the near future which will make Turkey the number one player in the Black Sea power struggle: the Istanbul Canal project. Through this new canal, Turkey will be able to pass aircraft carrier groups to the Black Sea without any international supervision even in times of peace. Military power is surely very important but the Istanbul Canal puts more power into the hands of Turkey through the energy axis and raises its position as an energy hub.

Turkey has two relatively small domestic crude oil pipelines, Ceyhan-Kırıkkale and Batman-Dörtyol, which pump 135,000 bb/d and 86,400 bb/d respectively. Turkey’s two major international pipelines, Kirkuk-Ceyhan and Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pale in comparison to the 2004-2008 average of 2.6-2.8 million barrels of oil transported through the crowded Bosphorus each and every day.

The Istanbul Canal could alleviate the pressure and reduce shipping delays, sometimes by up to three weeks. Even if the capacity of the Samsun-Ceyhan line were increased to 1.5 million barrels per day, there would still be over one million barrels of oil going through the Bosphorus, so clearly pipelines are not the answer.

Of course, the canal would affect the energy policies of other actors in the region. Having an alternative, nationally controlled sea route would increase Turkey's regional leverage, both politically and economically. The canal would also potentially have an undermining effect on the current pipeline projects of Russia, which would enable the West to have a genuine “sanctions card” to play against Russia.

Turkey’s pluralist foreign policy

These developments show the importance of Turkey’s pluralist foreign policy and rejection of taking sides in East-West disputes. Despite significant pressure from the outside, Turkey has always kept calm in times of crisis and did not turn its back on either Russia or the European Union.

If Turkey chose sides like many states expect it would, and turned its face to either East or West, this would become a catalyst in creating a new Cold War. I can name many respected analysts criticizing Turkey for having good relationships with Russia, Iran, Israel or America despite the ongoing tensions.

However, the delicate balances in the Black Sea right now heavily depend on Turkey being the calm, sane and wise rational actor in the escalating tensions. One needs to feel the moral dynamics, understand economic forces, recognize back-door diplomatic corridors and study the history of a region perfectly and be ready to accept the true driving force behind a community, no matter how controversial it may be to their personal beliefs.

A lack of deep understanding of the aforementioned details has led the majority of political pundits to make miscalculations not only with their poll predictions or the outcome of the protests in Turkey, but also with their foreign policy assessments. With its historical presence, special bonds and future projects, it is Turkey that will be holding the key to peace in the Black Sea in the near future.


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Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. As a representative of Harun Yahya organization, she frequently cites quotations from the author in her writings. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.