Straits could be closed to Russian ships if Turkey’s security threatened

The downing of the Russian jet by Turkey last Tuesday, the first time in half a century that a NATO member has shot down a Russian aircraft, triggered a harsh response from Moscow. Russia has since restricted tourist travel, left Turkish trucks stranded at its border, confiscated large quantities of Turkish food imports and started preparing a host of broader economic sanctions.

President Vladimir Putin also ordered the deployment of long-range S-400 air defense missile systems to a Russian air base in Syria just 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the border with Turkey to help protect Russian warplanes. The Russian military also warned it would shoot down any aerial target that poses a potential threat to its planes. Additionally, the military moved the missile cruiser Moskva closer to the coast to help cover Russian bombers on combat missions. Russia is also building a new airbase in Homs in order to expand the number of aircraft and troops in the territory of its southern ally.

The downing of the jet came after a ground operation by the Syrian regime’s military in the Bayırbucak region, where there are about 50 Turkmen villages. Russian warplanes backed the operation by pounding the mountainous area.

In a report published by Business Insider on Wednesday, Russia’s moves were seen as a message to discourage Turkey from shooting down Russian aircraft in the future.

The report maintains Russia has not engaged in any direct military confrontation with Turkey but prefers to retaliate by bombing Turkish-backed rebel groups, which includes the Turkmens.

However, Turkey could still possibly perceive Russia’s military buildup along the Turkish-Syrian border as a major threat to its national security and may decide to close the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus to the passage of Russian warships, according to the report.

Turkey has full control over the straits under the Montreux Convention signed in 1936. Turkey also has the authority to prevent military vessels from passing through its straits if they are those of a country it is at war with or in imminent danger of war with.

If Turkey invokes its trump card by closing its straits to Russian ships, this would deal a serious blow to Russia’s military campaign in Syria, according to Cem Devrim Yaylalı, a Turkish naval analyst.

In his blog, he wrote over the weekend Russia maintains its military presence in Syria by supplying its troops there with Ropucha and Alligator-class landing ships which pass through the Turkish straits.

“If Russia cannot send its ships through the Turkish straits for any reason, the Russian soldiers deployed in Syria may find themselves in a very similar position to General Paulus’ army,” he wrote.

General Paulus was a Nazi commander in World War II who led Germany’s drive on Stalingrad in 1942. He and his troops were ultimately forced to surrender after their assistance from Germany’s Sixth Army was cut off by strong Soviet Army formations.

Denial of passage to Russian civilian vessels

Turkey has already imposed restrictions on Russian cargo ships according to a report written by Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky, who says ships wait for hours before they are permitted to pass through the Bosporus.

On Tuesday the Sputnik news portal reported Russian ships had reportedly been waiting for hours near the Bosporus Strait to get the go-ahead from Turkey to be able to pass through the waterway. The report argued Turkey’s move was “a clear violation” of international norms.

Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Murat Bilhan, vice chairman of the Turkish Asian center for Strategic Studies (TASAM), said Russian boats often pose a danger to the environment and thus can be denied passage through the straits.

He added that the Montreux Convention also gives Turkey the right to search civilian ships if it receives a tipoff or if there is any suspicion of them being involved in smuggling or carrying weapons.

Sinan Ocan, a former Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputy, told reporters on Wednesday Turkey has the right to impose restrictions on Russian civilian ships passing through the straits if they are determined to contain pollutants. He added Russian civilian ships should be searched before coming to the straits over suspicion of carrying weapons.

“Russia’s boats threaten the Bosporus and the Canakkale Strait. Those boats pollute our straits. We have rights originating from the Montreux Convention. Maybe those ship are carrying weapons, this should be investigated. Turkey can line up those ships [at the straits] if it wishes,” said Ocan.

Low prospect for closure of Turkish straits

In remarks to Sunday’s Zaman, former diplomat and Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Faruk Lococlu said he doesn’t see any prospect of an escalation of the crisis between Russia and Turkey that would prompt Turkey to close its straits to Russian ships.

Even if factors that might push Turkey to close its straits to Russia emerge, it should be done with precaution in order not to enrage Russia further, Lococlu said.

Aaron Stein, a researcher from the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider on Wednesday it was unlikely that Turkey would close its straits unless a large-scale war erupted.

“I think this scenario would only kick in a World War II type situation,” said Stein.

Speaking to Sputnik news portal on Thursday, the head of Russia’s state-owned pipeline corporation Nikolay Tokarev said he doesn’t see a closure of the Turkish straits as being likely as well.

However, he argued that if Turkey blocks access to Russia vessels, such as those of Transneft, Turkey will be deprived of major revenue coming from the fees paid by Russian vessels.