In the past century, Michael McGwire, a former British Royal Navy commander and expert of Soviet strategy, defined the Black Sea as a potential “grenade in Russia’s gut”. The Black Sea could, indeed, become the perfect bridgehead to hit the country’s manufacturing, demographic and cultural core. Russians know this very well, and this partially explains the motivation behind the determined attack to recapture Crimea occurred in 2014. The question now is what this statement has to do with a water canal passing West of Istanbul, Turkey.
Turkey and Russia found themselves face to face several times in the past 5 years, often on opposite sides of the front – Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine – but often finding some room to negotiate and find an agreement, developing a relationship that has been sometimes defined as “coopetition”, despite Turkey still being a member of NATO.
Such a relationship with Russia could only emerge due to the growing assertiveness exhibited by Turkey, that led the country into several regional arenas. Indeed, Turkish involvement in Syria, Libya and its actions in the Eastern Mediterranean are of public knowledge. Such assertiveness and, in particular, the new attention exerted on sea by Turkish authorities has been widely influenced by the strategic doctrine of Mavi Vatan, or Blue Homeland, designed by Admiral Cem Gürdeniz in the early 00s and absorbed by Turkish institutions in the early 10s of this century.
In general, several experts pointed out that Turkey is trying to gain back some of the influence it had in the past over the Mediterranean area, the Arab world and the countries that were part of the former Ottoman empire, as well as increasing its influence in Africa, to become again a regional and global player. However, in Turkey recent years have also been characterized by several economic difficulties that partially worsened the country’s condition with respect to the beginning of the 00s and hindered the national ambition.
The Istanbul Canal
Istanbul, historically known as Byzantium and Constantinople, is Turkey’s largest city and has been an imperial capital for around 1600 years uninterruptedly, until the end of the Ottoman empire. It lies on the Bosphorus strait, which divides continental Europe from Asia. Currently, ships and navies must cross the Bosphorus to move between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. To access the latter, ships must also cross the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles, also known as the Strait of Çanakkale: there is no other way to move via water between Black and Mediterranean Seas.
The Istanbul Canal is the name of a prospective waterway on the West of the Bosphorus strait. At completion, it should run for 45 kilometers, be 150 meters wide and 25 meters deep and it would prevent ships from going through the Bosphorus, which cuts Istanbul in two. The project has been marketed to the public as a potential source of significant revenues for the State and as a tool to protect the environment from risky commercial ships transporting oil and other risky materials. Cost estimates have been diverse: from around $15 billion to $65 billion.
First unveiled in 2011 and dubbed by Erdogan himself as his “crazy project”, in 2017 it was announced that the beginning of its construction would begin the following year, but the project was eventually postponed and forgotten until the end of 2019, when discourse on it started once again. On April 4th, 104 retired admirals published an open letter overtly against the project, arguing it could jeopardize the Montreux Convention and, consequently, Turkish sovereignty on the straits. In response to the letter, the government detained ten of the retired admirals – among whom Cem Gürdeniz – on the grounds of “using force and violence to get rid of the constitutional order”.
The Montreux Convention
Signed in 1936, the document establishes Turkish sovereignty over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits and prescribes full freedom of navigation for commercial shipping. Furthermore, and probably most importantly, it restricts access to the Black Sea to the navies of non-Black Sea states, which makes Russia and Turkey the two most important military players of the basin.
The Convention benefits Russia under both perspectives: indeed, the crossing of the Straits cannot be subject to any toll, which is highly beneficial to the significant Russian exports of wheat and crude oil, and it is also a crucial defensive tool by avoiding free access to potentially hostile navies, such as that of the US. The Russian Navy is indeed fully exploiting its rights under the Convention and in 2019 it made up for 63% of total naval transits through the Straits, excluding Turkey. The US only amounted for 10% of the transits.
In or Out?
In 2020, President Erdogan declared the prospective Istanbul Canal would be “totally outside Montreux”, a statement that caused internal and external concern. At that time, more than a hundred retired Turkish ambassadors released a letter similar to the most recent one. Indeed, the admirals’ one follows a more recent declaration by the Turkish parliament speaker stating the possibility of leaving the Convention if Turkish officials wished. Erdogan then reaffirmed that the Canal will be “outside the limitations of the Montreux convention”.
However, it is still hard to see how such a statement could possibly be achieved. Indeed, the agreement also covers the Sea of Marmara and Dardanelles Strait and it would be particularly difficult to, for instance, legally let foreign navies access the Black Sea through the Canal as they would first need to go through the above-mentioned Sea and Strait.
Furthermore, the actual feasibility of the infrastructure is still to be fully proved. The city of Istanbul is currently presided by Ekrem Imamoglu, member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the main opposition to Erdogan’s ruling party AKP – and a strong opponent of the project. Citizens’ opposition due to environmental issues is also widespread and some of Turkey’s biggest banks are likely to refuse to fund the project on the same grounds.
The strategic role
Notwithstanding the actual state of the project and whether it will eventually see the light of day, the most interesting aspect of this infrastructure is the role it would have for Turkey in the international arena and, in particular, with respect to Russia and the US. The management of the new canal would be indeed fully dependent on Turkish willingness, while at the moment Turkey is a mere “administrator” of the Convention over the Straits. The canal would give Turkish officials the political power to govern naval traffic as they wish and, clearly, for the price they deem best. Under this perspective, some words from President Erdogan on its potential political value are particularly significant: “I am not using it now, but when the time comes, we’ll be using that as well. God willing, Canal Istanbul will be a big success internationally with that political aspect, too”.
The new waterway would allow Turkey to demand a toll for the transit of Russian ships carrying oil, something that would clearly weaken the Russian position while reinforcing the Turkish one. And it would also allow Turkey to potentially open the Black Sea to the US Navy in the event of a direct confrontation between the two superpowers.
In any case, it is evident the project would respond to the needs related to the assertiveness Turkey is currently putting into practice, by increasing its international relevance and giving it an advantage. It must also be noted that this dispute could significantly increase the tension in the area and among all the players involved, both directly and indirectly, something that rarely brings benefits and too often leads to direct confrontations. However, two elements emerge indisputably: Turkey’s growing role in the international arena and the strategic role of chokepoints, wherever they may be.