The straits in the Black Sea basin have always been central in the geopolitics of the region. The Istanbul canal could strengthen Turkey’s role as key player.
In the latest weeks increased attention has been focused on the topic of the straits in the Mediterranean basin, seawaters that connect Europe and Asia. The recent blockade of the Suez Canal, where a cargo ship remained stranded for several days, blocking the maritime traffic and thus causing significant slowdowns in shipments and affecting global trade, reminded us once again the key role that straits play in the geopolitics of the area.
Bites of history: the geopolitical role of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits
Moving from the Suez Canal towards north, we find the Black Sea basin and the city of Istanbul, which has always been considered a bridge between Europe and Asia. Here, a quick look at the map will already suggest the importance that this particular region has for international politics and trade.
Six states overlook the basin, including Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and two important straits cross one country, Turkey. The Bosporus channel is the waterway that joins the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and marks, together with the Dardanelles, the southern border between the European continent and the Asian one.
These straits consistently played a key role in the geopolitics of the region. To retrace their legacy, these channels have always been part of Turkey history and national politics. Besides, other countries have overlooked the canals and identified strategic interests over the centuries.
One among all, Russia that already during the era of Catherine the Great identified these channels as a solution to circumvent the limitation of not being able to freely access the Mediterranean Sea. Years later, after combating alongside Turkey in the Turkish-Egyptian conflict, in 1833, Russia obtained that the canals were open for passage exclusively to the Russian fleet.
Other courtiers individuated in the Bosporus and Dardanelles seaways a strategic way. The British, regulators of the region, obtained with the 1841 Convention of the Straits that no country’s military ships could cross the canals at the expenses of Russia, which remained without access to the Mediterranean Sea.
The radical change in power relations that followed the end of the First World War brought to the adoption of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which opened the straits to the passage of commercial and military ships of any power. However, the resurrection of Turkey and the subsequent adoption of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 grant the country to regain sovereignty over the straits, albeit with the obligation of demilitarization.
A decade after, Turkey profited of the precarious conditions prevailing in Europe at the time and bargained with the international community to review the conditions imposed by the Treaty of Lausanne. The renegotiation brought to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which is still in force today.
The Convention confirmed the international character of the straits but also recognized Turkey the right to rearm the entire area and accorded Ankara sovereignty over the channels. As a result, Turkey has the capacity to regulate the passage of commercial ships enjoying the right to freedom of passage through the straits, and to impose some restrictions to warships passage, depending on whether these ships belong to Black Sea States or not.
Moreover, the Montreux Convention defines the conditions under which Ankara has the right to block the passage of foreign ships for security reasons. Precisely, Articles 20 and 21 of the Convention establish that if there are countries that “threaten” Turkey, and it is up to Turkey to decide who is the threat, the transit can be unilaterally blocked. Hence, the Convention empowers Turkey’s with great strategic powers, but somehow restricted.
Erdoğan’s “crazy project”: the Istanbul canal
Several years later, the number of ships passing through these seaways has grown substantially, reaching the number of around 50.000 ships annually. Because of the increased traffic through the Bosporus and the consequent incidents that have occurred over the years, Turkey is rethinking the dynamics of the region.
Already since 2011, Erdoğan started planning the construction of a third canal between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, a project that he calls the “crazy project”. The Kanal Istanbul project has been approved by the Turkish Environment and Urbanization Ministry Murat Kurum despite the numerous dissenting voices, among them the mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu, that underline the possible negative impact of the new artificial canal on the environment.
The environmental impact
Indeed, environmentalists manifested serious apprehension about the artificial channel by arguing that the seaway will negatively impact the underground water resources of Istanbul and will expose the city to other social and urbanization risks.
As both the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea water surrounding Istanbul are salty, the provision of potable water has always been a major concern in the area. Around 40% of the water supply of the city comes from the European side of Istanbul, which will be seriously affected by the dig of the canal and the construction of the new airport, which is included in the new project plan.
Moreover, the construction of the waterway will have a significant impact on Istanbul’s residents, as it would displace thousands of persons.
Implications in the geopolitical dimension. Will Turkey decide to review the Montreux Convention?
Besides the issue of displacing the local population and the impact this new waterway could have on the environment, attention must be given to possible implications in the geopolitical dimension. The construction of the Istanbul canal could encourage Turkey to review the provisions included in the Montreux Convention. This possibility represents a threat specifically for Russia. Indeed, Moscow’s advantage in the Montreux Convention lies with the restrictions the Convention includes on military ships not belonging to Black Sea States, including those of NATO, which are already present in the basin but with limited capacity. Proposing a review of the Convention could deprive Russia of this advantage.
However, for now, the Turkish authorities have declared that they have no intention of reviewing the Montreux Convention, removing this possibility from the table of negotiations. Indeed, neither Turkey will benefit from the renegotiation of the Montreux Conventions. As a matter of fact, this could eventually undermine Turkey own stability in the region, since there is no certainty that reopening the dialogues on sovereignty over the straits will ensure Ankara the same powers which are included in the Montreux Convention as it is now.
Even so, the problem for Russia remains. Taking into consideration that Turkey is a regional NATO ally, in case the Montreux Convention will not apply on the Istanbul canal the presence of non-Black Sea States’ naval vessels in the Black Sea basin, introduced through the new strait, could become higher than the current presence under the Convention.
Notwithstanding this, it seems more likely that Turkey will use the Istanbul canal in order to increase its own standing as the central player in the region.
The Istanbul canal as a way for Turkey to increase its strategic role in the Black Sea basin
Turkish authorities recently specified the different nature of the regulations of the would-be Istanbul canal and the Bosporus and Dardanelles one, namely the Montreux Convention. Indeed, the intention is not to include the Istanbul canal under the provisions of the Convention, which will continue to be applied, as formerly done, to the Bosporus and the Dardanelles straits.
Rather, the artificial channel will be under the full control of Turkey. This means Ankara will have the capacity to regulate the traffic and to charge a fee over the passage. Of course, this element will be extremely profitable for Turkey, as most probably international stakeholders will be intentioned to pay the fee in order to avoid current delays in their shipments and to elude incidents in the Bosporus, due to the intense traffic.
But most importantly, Turkey will have the capacity to strategically set regulations on maritime traffic at discretionand hence increase its own geopolitical influence in the area. The opening of a new waterway, subjected to Turkey’s sovereignty and disengaged from the Montreux Convention, will give Ankara the chance to bypass the limits imposed to its strategic control of the straits by the Convention.
Moreover, Turkey is increasing the regional cooperation with its neighbors in the Black Sea basin, as well as the investments in the development of its naval fleet, which further underlines the willingness of Ankara to achieve greater strategic role in the area.