[ANALYSIS] Should Turkey review its naval strategy for the Black Sea?

Fatih Yurtsever*

Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine and subsequent military developments have significantly changed the geopolitical landscape of the Black Sea region. The Turkish Navy, which views the Black Sea as risk-free and has developed its naval strategy accordingly, has been caught off guard by current developments in the Black Sea. Navy headquarters analysts could not accurately assess the movements of Russian warships in the Black Sea and, therefore, were unable to predict the start of the invasion. Floating mines in the Black Sea currently pose a threat to the safety of navigation. The international public is concerned about “when and by whom the floating mines were laid”, but the command of the Turkish naval forces has not yet provided a satisfactory explanation. The lack of situational awareness of Turkish naval forces in the Black Sea casts doubt on its strategy in the Black Sea. So, does Turkey have a real naval strategy for the Black Sea? If so, how should this strategy be modified to meet Turkey’s security needs in light of recent developments?

The following principles guide Turkey’s strategy in the Black Sea. The Black Sea is a body of water with unique geopolitical characteristics. Any problem in the Black Sea must be resolved between the riparian states. No outside power should be allowed to interfere in these affairs since outside interventions aggravate the insolubility of the problems. The Montreux Straits Convention is an essential element in the context of the security and stability of the Black Sea.

Turkey has developed its naval strategy for the Black Sea according to these principles. Under the leadership of Turkey, the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Force (BLACKSEAFOR) was established in 2001 with the participation of the naval forces of the littoral states to ensure peace and stability in the Black Sea and promote regional cooperation . BLACKSEAFOR operations were suspended after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

With Russia’s consent, Turkey launched Operation Black Sea Harmony to combat illegal activities in the Black Sea and ensure that NATO’s counter-terrorist operation in the seas following the September 11 attacks against the United States does not include the Black Sea. Russia, Ukraine and Romania participated in Operation Black Sea Harmony in accordance with their bilateral agreements with Turkey. Turkey pursues the harmony of the Black Sea with its submarines, maritime patrol aircraft and submarines. However, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria concluded that BLACKSEAFOR and Black Sea Harmony were insufficient to stop Russia’s aggressive behavior towards its neighbors and were not mechanisms likely to ensure the security and stability of the Black Sea.

Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 reminded the states bordering the Black Sea of ​​a historical fact. Russia wants peace to reign in the Black Sea when it is weak, that no foreign powers intervene in the region, and that the relevant provisions of the Montreux Convention are strictly applied to warships of non-littoral states. However, as Russia grows in political and military power, it begins to tip the balance in its favor throughout the Black Sea, starting with the riparian states. Unfortunately, Turkey was unable to capitalize on Russia’s weak position after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead of building a structure with a deterrent and effective Turkish naval force to ensure the safety of everyone in the Black Sea, Turkey created a favorable environment for Russia in the Black Sea, which Russia needed to recover. The pro-Russian admirals who commanded the naval forces at the time also played a vital role in creating these conditions.

Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine and subsequent military developments have impacted the stability of the Black Sea and threaten the entire European continent. If Russia succeeds in taking control of Odessa, it will completely dominate the northern Black Sea, and Ukraine would be cut off from the Black Sea and become a landlocked country.

The commercial maritime routes of the Caspian, Black and Baltic seas are interconnected by the Don and Volga rivers. With the control of the Sea of ​​Azov, Russia will gain full control of the trade corridors that run from the India-Iran-Caspian Sea route to the Sea of ​​Azov, the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea through the rivers Don and Volga.

Keeping Odessa in Ukrainian hands benefits the security and economic interests of Turkey and Ukraine. Two major rivers border the Odessa region: the Dnieper and the Dniester. Odessa is located on the Danube Delta, connected by the Danube-Black Sea Canal to the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, which is vital for European trade, one of the most convenient waterways connecting Northern and Central Europe in the Middle East and Asia. European trade routes, including a significant part of the famous Silk Road, pass through Odessa Oblast. Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory to date indicates that Russia wants to exercise full control over the trade corridors connecting Asia, Europe and the Middle East that will cross the Black Sea. In line with this objective, it is not unreasonable to assume that Russia will eventually demand that Turkey implement the Montreux Convention according to its wishes.

Therefore, Turkey’s strategy for the Black Sea must be completely revised. Turkey must establish a standing naval force consisting of coastal surveillance radars, unmanned aerial vehicles, surface ships and submarines capable of round-the-clock reconnaissance and establishing maritime situational awareness in the Black Sea . The activities of each element of the Russian Black Sea Fleet must be closely monitored and analyzed. Once completed, submarines with air-independent propulsion systems are expected to be deployed in the Black Sea. The TCG Anadolu, an amphibious assault ship, should be regularly deployed in the Black Sea. TCG Anadolu is capable of carrying short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. Therefore, Turkey’s reintegration into the F-35 program is essential. The TCG Anadolu amphibious assault ship can carry STVOL F-35B Lightning II aircraft. A Turkish naval force backed by F-35 fighter jets will act as a deterrent against Russia. A Turkish naval force capable of deterring Russia in the Black Sea will benefit Turkey, the EU, NATO and other Black Sea littoral states.

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