A Russian warship, the Alexander Otrakovsky, passes through the Bosphorus on March 9 with heavy Turkish coast guard and police security. (photo: Yoruk Isik)
Russian warships passing through the Bosphorus are getting stronger protection from the Turkish coast guard and police, in an apparent response to heightened security concerns.
Last week two ships carrying cargo for the Russian military in Syria passed through the straits, which connect the Black Sea to the Mediterrannean, accompanied by three Turkish coast guard vessels, an Istanbul police department vessel, and a police helicopter. This week at least three more Russian warships have gotten the same protection.
This level of protection is unprecedented in recent years, said Can Devrim Yaylali, a Turkish naval expert and author of the blog Bosphorus Naval News. Normally the Russian ships are accompanied by a single Turkish coast guard vessel, Yaylali told The Bug Pit in an email interview.
Russian warships, by international treaty, are allowed to pass freely through the Bosphorus. That has been the source of some tension recently, as the two countries are at odds over the war in Syria and Turkey's shooting down of a Russian air force jet last year.
Nevertheless, the Turkish coast guard gives an escort to every foreign warship that passes through, Russian or otherwise. But what explains the new level of security? Yaylali suggests that the Turkish authorities probably got intelligence about a possible attack on a Russian ship. "Otherwise the Turks would not bother so much to protect Russian ships, especially in this political climate," he said.
It's not clear who in Turkey might be interested in attacking a Russian ship. But it's clear that Turks aren't happy about seeing the ships so regularly. The Russian ships passing through the Bosphorus "goad Turkey by sailing through the heart of its biggest city to supply the conflict in Syria," wrote the British newspaper The Independent, in a recent feature on Istanbul's shipwatchers (including Yaylali). “It’s like rubbing salt on an open wound,” Serhat Guvenc, one of the shipwatchers, told The Independent.
An attack on a ship in the Bosphorus would surely be met by a swift Russian response, which could very quickly spiral out of control (and possibly draw in NATO). So it's no wonder that Turkey, distasteful as it might be, is stepping up security for its rival's ships.