Are Turkey and Russia on a collision course in the Black Sea?

Are Turkey and Russia on a collision course in the Black Sea?

“Before the plane and after the plane” is how one could describe the change in Turkey’s stance on Russia within NATO, which is preparing for the Warsaw summit to take place next month.

Currently, huge diplomatic activity is taking place to reconcile the interests of the eastern and southern European states in view of different regional threats. In that respect, the Russian question will present a major challenge to reach a consensus on.

The challenge stems from the split within the alliance over how to respond to Russian “aggression.”

Eastern European states, led by the Baltic states and Poland, want a more “aggressive” response by strengthening NATO’s deterrence capabilities against Russia.

The western European states, led especially by Germany, are aware of Russia’s increasing assertiveness. Yet they are not on the same page with the eastern European states in terms of the “threat perception” and want to avoid an escalation that could be triggered by NATO’s response. They prefer a more calibrated approach.

The southern countries feel there is too much focus on Eastern Europe and want more attention to be paid to challenges coming from the south, like the threats posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the refugee crisis.

Where does Turkey stands vis-à-vis those rifts?

At this point, we need to use the downing of the Russian warplane by Turkish jets at the Syrian border last November as a reference point.

Before the downing of the plane, Turkey was rather closer to the western and southern axis. It endorsed a more calibrated approach towards Russia, as it enjoyed good relations with its northern neighbor. While it favored NATO’s enlargement by supporting Georgia’s membership in the alliance at the expense of angering Russia, it was more distant to military measures as a deterrent against Moscow.

Now there has been a shift and it is striking, especially when it comes to NATO’s presence in the Black Sea, for it is similar to a pendulum swing.

Before the plane, it fiercely resisted efforts by member states, especially the U.S, Bulgaria and Romania, to have an increased military presence in the Black Sea. It has not allowed any exception to the restrictions stated in the Montreux Convention that regulates maritime passages, especially of warships, through the straits.

That’s why I am sure NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg could not have believed his ears when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan complained to him about the invisibility of NATO in the Black Sea.

“During his visit I told him: ‘You are not visible in the Black Sea. And your invisibility in the Black Sea turns it into a Russian lake, so to speak,’” Erdoğan said last month, while addressing visiting chiefs-of-staff from Balkan countries.

Stoltenberg was probably polite enough not to say, “If NATO is invisible in the Black Sea, it is because of you,” in response to Erdoğan’s statement, which must have come as a surprise to Turkish diplomats too. 

Does that mean that Turkey’s decades-long policy of keeping Montreux intact will be changing? 

I am pretty sure Turkish officials are trying to get an answer to that question as well; something they should get used to, since it seems Turkey’s policy changes have become to depend on the two lips of one person.

Still, it will be highly unlikely to see any deviation from the imperatives of the Montreux treaty. Yet countries like Romania continue to push for a “forward presence,” in the Black Sea. 

One formula could be to have several Turkish warships in the Black Sea operating under the banner of a NATO mission. That could secure a NATO presence in the Black Sea without violating the Montreux Convention.

But Turkey can find it hard to convince its allies on such a formula, since some members won’t like the idea of NATO getting embroiled in a collision course between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea. After all, some NATO members are still not convinced by the arguments provided by Turkey on why Turkish jets had to down the Russian plane.  

At any rate, NATO’s Warsaw summit will be one of the most interesting gatherings in terms of Turkey’s relations with the West and Russia.