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türkiye’s role in black sea security post-russia’s invasion of ukraine

Türkiye’s Role in Black Sea Security Post-Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Author: Samantha Fanger

Feb 26, 2024

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

About a week after Russia made its initial offensive attacks against Ukraine in February 2022, Ankara closed the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to naval vessels from any country. Former Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, had declared Russia’s invasion a war the day prior to announcing the denial of passage, allowing Ankara to legally place these restrictions under the rules of the Montreux Convention. The strategic declaration and subsequent action were a significant example of one of Türkiye's roles in the region’s security. The Black Sea’s geopolitical importance since Russia's invasion of Ukraine has expanded, and Türkiye has played a critical, but complicated, role in its security upkeep. 

As the second-largest military power in NATO, Türkiye boasts a formidable armed presence in the region, facilitating access to the Black Sea through the Bosporus and Dardanelles. Dr. Celeste Wallander, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, emphasized Turkey's role as an important ally to promote Black Sea security and to address Russia in a recent Black Sea Security conference

“Looking to the South of the Black Sea Basin, Turkey has demonstrated its geostrategic significance as an important strategic partner throughout the crisis with Ukraine. Turkey has scrutinized the passage of Russian warships through the Turkish straits, supported Ukraine's territorial integrity, and Turkey was integral in setting up the [now suspended] Black Sea Grain initiative.” Wallander said in a conference cohosted by the Caspian Policy Center (CPC) and the Caucasus and Central Asia (CCA) club at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Following Türkiye's alignment with the West after World War II, the country has gone to great lengths to modernize its military, with NATO being the foundation of its defense and security strategy.

Military and Security Cooperation

Currently, Türkiye maintains its status, not only as the second-largest military force in NATO, but also as the strongest power in the region, second only to Russia. Its military comprises 775,000 armed forces, including 1,900 tanks, 3,100 artillery systems, 850 aircraft, and 92 ships. Türkiye allocates, 2.06%, or $16 billion of its $820-billion GDP, is allocated for defense spending. 

Türkiye's role also encompasses naval and security cooperation with neighboring countries, vital for maintaining stability and addressing common security concerns in the Black Sea. One recent example of this is the joint initiative between NATO allies Türkiye, Bulgaria, and Romania to tackle the threat of drifting sea mines in the Black Sea. In December, a civilian cargo ship bound for a Ukrainian Danube port was struck by a Russian mine, injuring two sailors. Since the war, floating mines in the Black Sea have become a threat to shippers and other sea-goers. 

At a news conference where all three Defense Ministers convened, Bulgarian Deputy Defense Minister Atanas Zapryanov stated that the mines were a “danger to ports, communication networks, and key water infrastructure. It is in our interest and NATO’s interest to develop countermeasures against this danger.” According to the signed agreement, the Mine Countermeasures (MCM) task force will entail deployments of a command ship three mine countermeasures ships, one from each country. Fifteen-day deployments will take place at least twice every six months.

Türkiye's Balancing Act with Russia 

Türkiye has made political moves in opposition to Russia since the start of the war, but economic ties between the two nations have strengthened. Though under pressure from the West to do more, Türkiye has made moves to seemingly test the limits of its ties to Russia through political action such as openly supporting Ukraine's NATO membership and donating drones and weapons to Kyiv. 

At the same time, Ankara has refrained from imposing sanctions on Russia and has increased its imports from Russia by 80% in 2022, partly due to inflation—a move that has helped sustain an economic partnership amid financial instability in both nations. A flourishing bilateral economic relationship points to one of Türkiye’s greatest weaknesses when it comes to Russia—economic dependence that is particularly dire in the energy sector. A significant portion of Türkiye's natural gas is still sourced from Russia through the Bluestream and Turkstream pipelines under the Black Sea. As a result, Türkiye is subject to a significant vulnerability—an overreliance on Russian energy resources that, as Europe can attest to after being plunged into an energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, can have catastrophic consequences. 

As part of this balancing act, President Erdoğan personally maintains cordial relations with Putin and has occasionally criticized European leaders for actions he deemed “provocative” to Russia. In 2019, Türkiye's acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system has strained relations with successive US administrations, resulting in its expulsion from the F-35 program.

Türkiye may be maintaining this balance for its own strategic self-interest, but it is a delicate walk between opposing red lines. However, something can also be said for how, given an increasingly complex and strained geopolitical environment, a Western ally with warmer relations with a malign actor could have its uses. Though currently stuck in a game of appeasement with Russia, Türkiye could be an interlocutor. Türkiye's participation in brokering a grain deal with Russia 2022 is one example of this. In September 2023, Türkiye, along with the UN and the U.S., made great efforts to revive the Black Sea grain deal, which Russia had backed out of in July. 

“We would like Turkey to be closer in line with the American, EU, and G7 focus, not just on the political holding of Russia into account, but also in taking material steps to make it harder for Russia to conduct operations,” Wallander said, adding that the U.S. continues to work with Turkish counterparts on this challenge. "We have succeeded in addressing some of these areas of concern, but we must continue to make this case because there is a significant longstanding relationship between Turkey and Russia. 


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