Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 and subsequent military developments have significantly altered the geopolitical landscape in the Black Sea region. The Turkish Navy, which considers the Black Sea to be free of risk and has developed its naval strategy accordingly, was caught unprepared by today’s developments in the Black Sea. Naval headquarters analysts could not accurately assess the movements of Russian warships in the Black Sea and as a result were unable to predict the beginning of the invasion. Floating mines in the Black Sea currently pose a threat to the safety of navigation. The international public is concerned with the question of “when and by whom the floating mines were laid,” but the Turkish Naval Forces Command has yet to provide a satisfactory explanation. The Turkish Naval Forces’ lack of situational awareness in the Black Sea casts doubt on its Black Sea strategy. 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 problems in the Black Sea must be resolved among the littoral states. No external power should be allowed to interfere in these matters since external interventions aggravate the insolubility of the problems. The Montreux Convention on the Straits is an essential element in the context of Black Sea security and stability.
Turkey developed its naval strategy for the Black Sea according to these principles. Under Turkey’s leadership, the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group (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 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
With Russia’s consent, Turkey launched Operation Black Sea Harmony to combat illegal activities in the Black Sea and ensure that the NATO counterterrorism operation in the seas following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States does not include the Black Sea. Russia, Ukraine and Romania have participated in the Black Sea Harmony Operation in accordance with their bilateral agreements with Turkey. Turkey is continuing Black Sea Harmony 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 toward its neighbors and were not mechanisms that could ensure the security and stability of the Black Sea.
Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014 reminded the Black Sea littoral states of a historical fact. Russia wants peace to prevail in the Black Sea when it is weak, for no foreign power to intervene in the region and for the relevant provisions of the Montreux Convention to be strictly applied to warships of non-littoral states. However, as Russia gains political and military strength, it is beginning to shift the balance in its favor throughout the Black Sea, starting with the littoral states. Unfortunately, Turkey was not able 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 at its core to ensure the security of all in the Black Sea, Turkey created a favorable environment for Russia in the Black Sea, which Russia needed to recover. Pro-Russian admirals in command of the naval forces at the time also played an essential role in creating these conditions.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 and subsequent military developments have impacted stability in the Black Sea and threaten the entire European continent. If Russia succeeds in gaining control of Odessa, it will completely dominate the north of the Black Sea, and Ukraine would be cut off from the Black Sea and become a landlocked country.
The commercial sea routes of the Caspian, Black, and Baltic seas are connected to each other by the Don and Volga rivers. With control of the Azov Sea, Russia will gain complete control over the commercial corridors that come from the India-Iran-Caspian Sea route to the Azov Sea, the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea through the Don and Volga rivers.
Keeping Odessa in the hands of Ukraine benefits the security and economic interests of both 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 with the Middle East and Asia. European trade routes, including a significant section of the famous Silk Road, run through the Odessa Oblast. Russia’s occupation of territory in Ukraine to date indicates that Russia wants to exert complete control over the trade corridors connecting Asia, Europe and the Middle East that will run through the Black Sea. Consistent with this goal, it is not unreasonable to assume that Russia will eventually require Turkey to implement the Montreux Convention according to its wishes.
Consequently, Turkey’s Black Sea strategy must be entirely 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 should be closely monitored and analyzed. Once their construction is completed, submarines with air-independent propulsion systems should be deployed in the Black Sea. TCG Anadolu, an amphibious assault ship, should be deployed in the Black Sea on a regular basis. TCG Anadolu is capable of carrying short take-off and vertical landing aircraft (STOVL). Therefore, Turkey’s re-entry into the F-35 program is critical. The TCG Anadolu Amphibious Assault Ship can carry STVOL F-35 B Lightning II aircraft. A Turkish naval force supported 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.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.