Plus one strait. How Erdogan’s megastroke will change the balance of power in the Black Sea

Kirill Zharov

This summer, President Erdogan launched the Turkish construction of the century – the new Istanbul shipping canal, which is supposed to duplicate the Bosphorus, connecting the Black and Marmara Seas slightly to the west of the natural straits. The project has already become the main event in the economic and political life of Turkey, but this is unlikely to end there.

The channel not only requires multi-billion dollar investments and creates a new trade route, but also calls into question the existing balance of power in the region. So far, neither the Turkish authorities, nor the United States, nor Russia are ready to clearly answer how the canal will affect the Montreux Convention, which has been regulating the movement of warships between the Mediterranean and the Black Seas for almost a century.

Military channel

The Montreux Convention on the Status of the Bosporus and Dardanelles was adopted in 1936 and allows Turkey to single-handedly regulate the movement of warships through them. Also, the convention imposes serious restrictions – mainly on non-Black Sea states. Warships of countries that do not have access to the Black Sea can stay there for no more than 21 days; there are also restrictions on the total tonnage and types of ships. For example, aircraft carriers and submarines cannot be navigated through the straits.

The emergence of the channel creates a complex legal conflict in this matter – how will the movement of military courts along it be regulated? Will its discovery be the basis for the abolition of the restrictions contained in the Montreux Convention?

The fact is that the text of the convention makes it possible to interpret the Dardanelles – Sea of ​​Marmara – Bosphorus route as an inseparable waterway, and if a warship deviates from it at least in one section (for example, it sails not along the Bosphorus, but along the Istanbul canal), then the restrictions of the convention no longer apply to him.

The possibility of such an interpretation raises concerns that the opening of the canal could lead to the militarization of the Black Sea – for example, if Turkey decides to make it easier for warships of other countries, especially its NATO allies, to pass through it. Then the alliance will be able to expand its presence in the Black Sea by increasing bases in Bulgaria and Romania. This, in turn, will inevitably provoke a hostile response from Russia. So, in the end, incidents with warning shooting, like with a British ship off the coast of Crimea, may become common in the Black Sea.

So far, the United States has not outlined its vision of how the canal under construction will affect the position of Montreux. On the one hand, the Turkish project for them is a potential opportunity for unlimited stay in the Black Sea, as well as sending aircraft carriers and submarines there. On the other hand, the convention is not devoid of benefits for themselves, because in wartime it gives the exclusive right to control the straits to their NATO ally, Turkey.

Now it is difficult to predict exactly what the position of the United States will be in a few years, when the construction of the canal will be completed. However, if this topic arises, then it can be expected that Washington will insist on the liberalization of the passage of warships. This approach fits into the American strategy of containing Russia and corresponds to the principled position of the Americans that the Black Sea should be open to everyone and without restrictions.

For Turkey itself, the Montreux Convention is still relevant, albeit a somewhat outdated historical heritage. Erdogan, on the one hand, promised not to give it up, but, in his own words, the convention will not be related to the new channel. And this may mean that the only restriction on the passage of warships into the Black Sea will remain Turkey’s payment for services.

However, it is undoubtedly unprofitable to completely denounce Montreux to Ankara. Indeed, in wartime, Turkey has almost exclusive rights to control all traffic through the straits. In addition, the powers granted by the convention give Turkey leverage over both Russia and NATO allies.

But for Russia, the liberalization of the passage of warships between the Black and Mediterranean Seas does not promise any special benefits. Moscow is already finding ways to bypass Montreux’s restrictions, taking advantage of the fact that the convention does not reflect modern technological realities.

Back in the 1970s, the USSR escorted the heavy aircraft-carrying cruisers Kiev and Leningrad through the straits, explaining this by the fact that, although they have aircraft on the deck, they only use it to guard ships. The same is with submarines – if they go through the straits on the surface and not on a combat mission, but, for example, for repairs to a Russian non-Black Sea port, then the Turks allow this, so as not to aggravate relations with Moscow once again.

It is significant that the United States is doing much worse bypassing these restrictions. For example, during the war in Georgia in 2008, they wanted to conduct two floating hospitals in the Black Sea on a humanitarian mission – Mercy and Comfort, but Turkey did not give permission, justifying this by the fact that they significantly exceed the permitted tonnage standards for crossing the straits.

It is clear that the decision of the Turkish authorities was political – both their traditional distrust of Washington and their desire to avoid an escalation between the United States and Russia in the Black Sea affected this. However, this experience may become another basis for a possible confrontation between Russia and the United States due to the status of the new channel. Washington is known for its demands for freedom of navigation, while representatives of the Russian authorities are already speaking out about the importance of preserving Montreux.

The international community could put pressure on Turkey and demand that all legal issues be clearly clarified in advance: whether the channel will be inscribed in Montreux, or will fall under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), or even become a purely commercial route available only to civilian ships. But so far this has not happened. Apparently, the leading powers are in no hurry to get involved in this complex and conflicting topic, fearing that Turkey may not yet find enough money to complete the large-scale construction.

Economic channel

It really will take a lot of money to complete the project, and it will not be so easy to attract them. Many Western banks and related private Turkish banks refuse to finance the new channel due to its potentially negative impact on the environment.

The future profitability of the enterprise also raises many questions. The commercial side of transit along the new route has not yet been calculated even by the authors of the project. Yes, queues are periodically lined up in the Bosphorus, through which up to 43 thousand ships pass annually, and the new channel will be able to receive ships of almost any size, but the advantages for ship operators from its use are not yet obvious.

It shortens the path between the seas only slightly, especially if the ships go to or from the eastern part of the Black Sea. The savings in diesel fuel will be even less convincing if the canal toll is high. Now figures are being heard that from 120 to 180 ships will pass through the canal per day, but these are purely speculative estimates – there are no load calculations even on the official website of the project.

Only for the construction of the canal itself, according to the authorities, it will be necessary to attract about $ 15 billion. To this must be added the cost of building six new bridges and three metro lines across the canal. For comparison: one third bridge over the Bosphorus with access roads cost $ 3 billion.

The Turkish authorities themselves indirectly admit that shipping along the canal is unlikely to be profitable enough to repulse such large-scale investments. Erdogan has repeatedly pointed out that this is a complex project and that a lot will be invested in the development of areas along the canal, in services and real estate. In fact, a new city for a couple of million people will appear there, and the land in the canal zone is going to be sold, including to foreign investors.

Apparently, it is the infrastructure around the canal that should provide the project with sufficient funding. China is already showing active interest , whose companies recently bought a controlling stake in the Northern Ring Road and the third bridge over the Bosphorus. The profitability of the bridge and the road turned out to be much lower, which was expected, so the Italian consortium that was building them withdrew from the project almost immediately after commissioning. But the Chinese have agreed to acquire this multibillion-dollar asset because it will become an important part of the Istanbul Canal infrastructure.

Finally, the main participants in the mega-construction will be companies from the inner circle of President Erdogan, who, apparently, acted as the main lobbyists for the project. Regardless of future profitability over the years of construction, the Turkish government will have to place orders for hundreds of millions of dollars among them. Further development of infrastructure, construction of the promised residential and commercial fund along the canal, yacht harbors and ports are already billions.

Erdogan will be re-elected in 2023, and for a guaranteed victory he needs to stop vacillating within the ruling elite, to interest big business in a megaproject that will generate income for years to come – the construction of the new canal is unlikely to end before 2027-2028.

The Turkish economy is supported by several powerful conglomerates. Among them there are independent and opposition ones, but holdings and groups of companies Calik, Kalyon, Albayrak, İhlas, Dogus have the main influence . They are all close to Erdogan and his administration. The President personally attended the weddings of the children and grandchildren of the owners of these companies, his son-in-law Berat Albayrak headed the board of directors of the Calik Group before becoming Minister of Finance (2018–2020).

The assets of these holdings include the largest media companies, ardent pro-government newspapers and TV channels. During the years of Erdogan’s rule, companies friendly to him have won the best tenders in Turkey. The Kalyon Group, for example, was part of a consortium to build a new Istanbul airport, another of the president’s mega-projects. Other companies are engaged in infrastructure throughout the country and especially in Istanbul – they are building roads, metro, housing. The volume of already completed and ongoing projects is tens of billions of dollars.  

So the Istanbul channel is, first of all, a gift from Erdogan to his comrades-in-arms, with the help of which he remains in power for more than 20 years, and only then is it a blessing for Istanbul and international shipping. The president will leave someday, but his entourage will remain grateful and secured with orders and contracts for many years. And for the Turkish leader, this is now more important than the Montreux Convention, new geopolitical crises and changes in the military balance in the Black Sea.

Courtesy: (Carnegie)