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Saturday, 6 June 2015

Bosporus - dire Straits

Recently, I've been connecting some dots: Black Sea, Crimea, Georgia, Greece, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. The common denominator is the Bosporus and the Dardanelles (a.k.a. the Turkish Straits).

Greece and Turkey are both NATO members since 1952. Turkey was/is an aspiring member of the European Union. The rise of the Turkish AK party has changed things. An EU membership is now far away, if still in demand at all. Even Turkey's membership of NATO is more and more criticised since its invasion and occupation of the northern part of the island of Cyprus in 1974.

The rise of the Turkish AK party seems to coincide with a renewed Russian interest in the Black Sea. The military relevance of the Russian Black Sea Fleet is however limited as a result of the Turkish control over the Bosporus. An isolation of Turkey would be in the interest of Russia. And the Turkish AK party seems perfectly capable of isolating itself from its alliances.

The continued Greek drama (e.g., Syriza vs EU-IMF) and its historic communist sympathies may provide an interesting spark to the Russians to stir up the historic tensions between Greece and Turkey. Such a spark could relate to Cyprus, acquiring strategic Greek assets, or the Bosporus.

Control over the Bosporus is governed in the Montreux Convention of 1936 and serves two purposes: inbound and outbound traffic. For centuries inbound traffic was most important to protect Russia’s belly from aggressors. Although the Bosporus is quite helpful from a defensive (i.e., inbound) angle, it is also a major hurdle from an outbound perspective. You can't cross the Straits without Turkish approval. The Montreux Convention even forbids the use of the Bosporus by certain large military vessels. This clause originally was of a defensive nature but works both ways.

In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev gave the Crimea to Ukraine, then a Soviet state. The loss of their major Black Sea naval base in Sebastopol (Crimea) to Ukraine was unacceptable to Russia. Taking back what was once theirs – although legally a hostile invasion, like the Turkish one in Cyprus – makes perfect sense. To Russia at least. Regaining Russian control over the Black Sea may well explain certain ongoing  - and future - developments. Historically, the Black Sea was Russian after defeating other surrounding nations at the Black Sea (e.g., Turkey).

The Russian naval base in Syria explains Russia’s relentless support of that regime. It's their only Mediterranean naval base. A naval base in Greece would be most welcome. This also explains the American fears over the Greek developments in Europe. This knowledge also allows the Greeks to play a high stake poker game.

Finally, the current low level of oil prices and the unusually high Saudi oil production levels have crippled the Russian economy and have also damaged the American aim for energy independence (e.g., shale oil/gas). The Russians can't afford spending huge amounts in acquiring Greek strategic (military) assets. Yet, a 2 billion euro Russian-Greek gas pipeline deal has already been announced. It is geopolitical (bluff) poker on a extraordinary scale.

Ultimately, control over the Bosporus is essential for Russia to re-emerge as a superpower.