Turkey, and especially Istanbul, has been called the crossroads of the world, geographically and commercially connecting Europe with Asia, and the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. The latter of which happens to be crucial to Russian shipping and especially its naval operations, acting as a corridor for the Black Sea Fleet to access the world.

With tensions broiling over Turkey’s shooting-down of a Russian Su-24, and with Russian sanctions looming, Turkey may be brandishing its ultimate “soft power” weapon in hopes of controlling Moscow’s response; shutting down or slowing Russia’s access to the strategic nexus between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the Bosphorus Strait.

Over the past few days, reports from western and Russian press alike state that warships belonging to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and Russian-flagged cargo ships have been greatly delayed or kept entirely from passing through the Bosphorus Strait, with local officials supposedly saying they are awaiting special “permissions” before allowing the vessels through.

Regardless of how accurate any of these reports are, they are a loud reminder of a key strategic card Turkey holds, one that could cripple Russia’s naval presence in the Mediterranean and severely hurt international commerce that travels into and out of the Black Sea via the Bosphorus Strait.

Cutting off, or even heavily delaying Russian access to the Mediterranean or the Black Sea would be a huge blow to Moscow’s air campaign in Syria. Much of the material needed to support that campaign is conveyed via this route. It would also signal a grand escalation in reprisals between Turkey and Russia, and it could even be an avenue for a standoff, or even an armed conflict could arise.

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If Turkey were to shut down or encumber Russia’s access Bosphorus access for a prolonged period of time, such an act would go against the Montreux Convention that regulates naval movements through the Strait. Signed in 1936, this agreement allows for merchant ships to traverse the strait freely. It also allows any naval ship of small to medium size (under 15,000 tons) free passage, and naval ships of any size belonging to countries located on the Black Sea can pass through freely during times of peace. During times of war all bets are off, and it is up to Turkey, a NATO member, to decide exactly who is allowed through the channel and who is not under combat conditions.

If indeed Russian ships are being delayed unnecessarily, it is obviously a warning to Moscow, a reminder of the power Turkey holds when it comes to Russia’s logistical ecosystem and power projection abilities. Closing the strait to all Russian traffic, or even just military traffic, would be a huge escalation on Turkey’s behalf, and it would also leave a portion of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet stranded in the Mediterranean.

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It is unlikely it will happen, at least over a long enough term to become a huge international issue. Then again when you consider Turkey shot down a Russian attack jet just for straying into their airspace for a few seconds, anything is possible at this point.


Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.

Photos via AP. Map via wikicommons/Morgan Einstein