Turkish-Russian relations are in the gutter since the downing of that attack jet, yet it is not exactly a relationship in which one party can just ignore the other. Both economies are intertwined and Russia has to pass through Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait in order to access the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. Turkey may have reminded Russia of this very recently, but it still does not explain why Russian sailors were donning shoulder-fired surface-air-missiles today during one of Russia’s amphibious ship’s transits.
The ship shown in the photo is the Caesar Kunikov (BDK-64), one of the Black Sea Fleet’s Ropucha class landing ships. These vessels have been supporting Russia’s mission in Syria, moving troops, material and vehicles from Russia’s Black Sea ports to their dedicated port in Tartus, Syria.
As to why they would be pulling out man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) during the transit by Istanbul is a total mystery. Sure the rhetoric has been hot between Russia and Turkey, but it is not as if Turkey would sink a Russian ship, especially one that it was escorting through its waters under the terms of the Montreux Convention.
Maybe there was some other perceived aerial threat that instigated this change in force protection. But surely if there were, the Turkish military would be on it, as that would threaten the stability of commerce using the strategic channel and any structure or vessel in and around Istanbul, the Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmara, for that matter.
Russia is no stranger to applying MANPADS to military operations. They learned the hard way just how effective these weapons can be during their decade-long war in Afghanistan, where US-made Stingers brought down many Russian aircraft, turning the tide of the war. Twenty-five years later, the use of such weapons was the bane of the Ukrainian Air Force during the height of the fighting in eastern Ukraine. In the end they claimed many Ukrainian aircraft and aircrews.
Maybe this show of force had something to do with the small fleet of NATO ships that are currently at anchor in Istanbul’s harbor. The destroyer USS Ross, along with three other NATO surface combatants, are said to entering the Black Sea soon. Combined, this will be the largest NATO force to enter the closed-in body of water since Russia’s invasion of Crimea almost two years ago.
The only thing that comes to mind is such a clear, albeit rudimentary line of aerial defense may have been put in place under concerns that an attempt may be made to board the ship via an aerial assault. This would be a dramatic and dangerous affair with no clear or known motive, but men on deck with MANPADS at the ready would certainly deter such an action.
We will keep you up to date as this mystery unfolds.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.