Bosphorus ship watcher traces changing fortunes in Ukraine conflict

The ship spotter Yoruk Isik in Istanbul.Janice Dickson/The Globe and Mail

From his terrace in Istanbul, Yoruk Isik has an unobstructed view of the Bosphorus Strait, where he observes and tracks ships crossing one of the busiest waterways in the world.

“International events and trade are happening right in front of me,” he said on a cold, windy day. “We are only 100 meters from the European side of the Bosphorus, and probably 350 meters from where the ships pass.”

The Bosphorus is a key link between Asia and Europe, connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of ​​Marmara, which in turn joins the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles Strait. By Sunday morning, merchant traffic was moving southwest, perhaps continuing to the Red Sea, the Arabian Peninsula, or west to France or even to the United States.

“We’re just getting started, so what we see from here could go around the world,” he said.

These days, it’s what Mr. Isik doesn’t see that’s notable.

Last week, a historic decision was taken: Turkey called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a war, paving the way for the country to implement parts of the Montreux Convention, a 1936 international pact. which allows Turkey to limit the transit of warships in the Turkish strait when there is war in the region or it feels threatened. The Bosphorus and the Dardanelles are now closed to military traffic, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.

“Normally we see military ships here every day,” said Mr. Isik, a nonresident researcher at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a geopolitical analyst in Istanbul where he runs the Bosphorus Observer, a consultancy firm. maritime.

Since he started tracking ships “obsessively” 10 years ago, he has documented thousands of ships. More than 40,000 pass through the Bosphorus each year, including 200 warships. “I know exactly where they are,” Mr. Isik said.

He grew up watching ships on the Bosphorus, drawn to the hobby because he enjoys asking questions and solving mysteries, such as finding out what the ships are carrying and whether they are involved in anti-terrorism activities. ethical or illegal. He tries to document every passing ship, sharing it online for open source use. of animal rights to military maneuvers, “everything that is important to you, you can monitor maritime activities,” he said.

“I like Russian business very much, so I focus on Russian business.”

The Montreux Convention, Mr. Isik explained, was introduced to give Turkey control of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles: “The treaty was designed so that there are no surprises.” Black Sea countries must notify Turkey eight days before transit, and non-Black Sea countries must give 15 days notice.

However, Russia continued to pose a constant threat by trying to control the Black Sea and turn it “into a Russian lake”, he added, most recently by arming occupied Crimea.

Mr Isik said he believed Turkey had closed the strait to all warships, rather than just targeting Russia and Ukraine, to perhaps favor the Russians or give them an opportunity to march back without being targeted.

The view from ship watcher Yoruk Isik’s house.Janice Dickson/The Globe and Mail

Under the convention, ships belonging to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet can pass once to permanently return to their home bases. Russia currently has five ships in the Mediterranean that belong to the fleet, Mr. Isik said: a powerful missile frigate, two new diesel-electric submarines carrying the same type of caliber cruise missiles, a minesweeper and an offshore tug.

But although he is allowed to pass, he does not think they will because it could cause tension with Mr Erdogan, who has spoken emphatically about the strait. “I think they are trying not to push Turkey any further.”

Still, Mr Isik said the closure would become unacceptable for Russia in the medium to long term because the Bosphorus is vital to its military campaign in Syria and its power projection in the Mediterranean.

For now, based on his observations, Mr. Isik believes that Russia already has what it needs to wage its war from the sea. they conducted naval exercises, including ships from other fleets.

“They are treating the Black Sea once again as completely under their control. It is therefore an unacceptable situation for all countries.

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