Article by Louise Callaghan.
Yoruk Isik has tracked Russian vessels from his observation spot on the Bosphorus
Squinting into the salt-tinged breeze, Yoruk Isik looked out over the Bosphorus from the passenger deck of an Istanbul ferry. Each day, the veteran ship-spotter obsessively tracks the vessels that pass through this narrow waterway, carrying iron ore from South America, vehicle parts from Romania, oil from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.
Since the war in Ukraine began, however, his observations have taken a different turn.
These straits, where the warships of Alexander the Great and Suleiman the Magnificent once sailed to battle, have now become a vital artery for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Despite western sanctions and arms embargoes, Moscow is continuing to trade and resupply through the straits — putting Turkey, a Nato member that sold arms to Kyiv but has tried to keep in with the Kremlin, in a decidedly awkward position.
“The entire commercial activity of southern Russia, imports and exports, passes through here,” said Isik, 51, as a seagull coasted past, hanging in the breeze. “It puts it into perspective a bit. Not everything is so dire for Russia. Some of their business continues.”
Each week, from his observation spots on the straits, he spots something new: grain stolen by Russia from the occupied Ukrainian territories and shipped to Syria; millions of litres of Russian oil sent to India; mysterious supplies ferried on Russian-flagged civilian ships that are part of an auxiliary arm of the Russian navy.
“It’s mind-boggling,” said Isik, who is also a geopolitical analyst with the Middle East Institute. “It’s capitalism par excellence.”
Meanwhile, Russia is maintaining a full naval blockade of Ukraine, strangling its economy and preventing exports of vital commodities like grain and oil amid fears of rising global hunger.
None of this violates the 1936 Montreux Convention, the agreement which governs the straits and allows complete freedom of passage of all civilian vessels in peacetime — as well as giving Turkey the power to restrict the passage of navies that are not part of the Black Sea states.
It does, however, highlight the increasingly difficult bind that Turkey finds itself in: attempting to navigate its way around a war without being drawn into it. A few days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Turkey shocked the world by announcing a ban on all military vessels through the Bosphorus for the first time since the Second World War.
Since then it has trodden an extremely delicate path: expressing sympathies and support to the Ukrainian people — and, more concretely, selling them Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, which are continuing to do enormous damage to Russian forces — while at the same time trying not to antagonise the Kremlin.
Unlike many of its Nato allies, Turkey has declined to impose sanctions on Russia, and has attempted to position itself as an interlocutor between the two warring sides. The last round of discussions, held in Istanbul, didn’t result in any lasting agreements, but did end with the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich — a member of the negotiating team — apparently having been poisoned.
Turkey has also fallen out with its fellow Nato states over its refusal to allow Finland and Sweden to enter the alliance. Last week, western and Turkish diplomats appeared to believe that the issue would soon be resolved. Publicly, however, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and pro-government media outlets kept up a steady stream of outrage at what they claim is Sweden’s lax attitude towards Turkey’s security concerns, particularly concerning Kurdish militants.
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Turkey has banned all military vessels from travelling through the Bosphorus - ALTAN GOCHER/REX