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[ANALYSIS] Russia is trying to confront Turkey and Ukraine in the Black Sea

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Fatih Yurtsever*

A video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) on May 24 claims to show the destruction of a Ukrainian unmanned surface vessel (USV) that reportedly attempted to target the Ivan Khurs, a Project 18280 Yuriy Ivanov-class intelligence ship, in the Black Sea. The Ivan Khurs was located roughly 80 nautical miles northeast of Turkey’s Bosporus Strait at the time. The video was shared through the MoD’s official media channel, Zvezda news, and appears to depict the final moments of the Ukrainian USV approaching the Russian Black Sea Fleet near the Ivan Khurs. Tracer rounds, presumably from 14.5mm deck-mounted machine guns, can be seen narrowly missing the USV before it turns and is struck on the bow, igniting a large explosion.

“Today at 5:30 a.m., the Ukrainian armed forces made an unsuccessful attempt to attack the Ivan Khurs ship of the Black Sea Fleet with three unmanned speedboats,” the MOD said in a statement. The statement further emphasized that the ship was “engaged in tasks to safeguard the operation of the TurkStream and Blue Stream gas pipelines within the exclusive economic zone [EEZ] of the Republic of Turkey.”

It is important to carefully analyze the statement from the Russian MOD, specifically focusing on the fact that the attack targeted a warship responsible for safeguarding the TurkStream and Blue Stream gas pipelines within the Turkish EEZ in the Black Sea.

The EEZ is a sea area that extends 200 nautical miles beyond a nation’s territorial sea as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Within this region, a state has special rights pertaining to the exploration and use of marine resources. The coastal nation holds jurisdiction over both living and non-living resources. However, the sovereignty of the state over its EEZ is not absolute. Other states retain certain rights within the EEZ of the coastal state, such as freedom of navigation and the right to conduct naval exercises. Thus, the presence of a Russian intelligence vessel within the Turkish EEZ is considered normal under UNCLOS. However, the Russian MOD’s statement claiming that the ship was attacked while within the Turkish EEZ is provocative. It may be perceived as if the Ukrainian Armed Forces targeted Russia and Turkey, violating Turkey’s sovereign rights. In reality the EEZ and territorial waters are not the same. While a country must obtain permission through diplomatic channels to have a warship within another country’s territorial waters, the same is not required for an EEZ. Other countries’ navies can have warships within the EEZ of any country under the framework of freedom of navigation.

Another point that stands out in the Russian MOD statement is the claim that the Russian intelligence ship was in the area to protect the TurkStream and Blue Stream pipelines. Italy and Russia own the Blue Stream pipeline, while Russia is the sole owner of TurkStream. Only the TurkStream pipeline passes through the seabed where the intelligence vessel was located. Russia is signaling in this statement that it can take additional protective measures if necessary to protect the pipeline from sabotage. If there is a possibility of sabotage to the TurkStream pipeline, it is primarily the task of the Turkish Navy to protect the pipeline.

The Turkish Navy has been conducting the Black Sea Harmony operation in the Black Sea since 2004 in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 1373, 1540, and 1566 aimed at deterring terrorism and asymmetric threats in the Black Sea. Maritime patrol aircraft, unmanned air vehicles, helicopters, coastal radars, submarines and frigates belonging to Turkish Naval Command are conducting maritime surveillance in the context of Black Sea Harmony to compile a maritime recognition picture in the Black Sea. Turkey should possess adequate surveillance and intelligence data to evaluate the likelihood of sabotage concerning the TurkStream pipeline. Under normal circumstances, Turkey should not need Russia’s help or the deployment of an intelligence vessel to protect TurkStream. Russian intelligence ship Ivan Khurs doesn’t have the capability to take relevant measures If she detects any attack on the pipeline. She doesn’t feature underwater detection systems or a Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) to monitor the pipeline. However, neither the Turkish Foreign Ministry nor the Turkish Ministry of Defense has responded to to Russia’s statement. The Turkish Foreign Ministry should clarify that Turkey has sufficient naval power to ensure the security of pipelines passing through its EEZ in the Black Sea and that the reconnaissance and surveillance activities carried out within the scope of Operation Black Sea Harmony are sufficient.

Ukraine lost most of its naval power after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Therefore, Ukraine does not have the naval power to prevent the activities of the corvettes, frigates and submarines in the Russian Black Sea Fleet and ensure the security of its maritime transportation. Russian warships damage Ukrainian infrastructure and military installations with Kalibr cruise missiles, which they easily launch from the ships. Since the Russian Black Sea Fleet has imposed a naval blockade on Ukrainian ports, Ukrainian grain can only be transported to the world market under the Black Sea Grain Initiative launched on July 22, 2022, brokered by the UN and Turkey.

Therefore, Ukraine’s naval strategy is based on building a naval drone fleet with the USV to inflict maximum damage on Russian warships and limit their freedom of movement in the Black Sea. Ukraine believes this will allow it to protect its territory from Kalibr cruise missiles fired from Russian warships, and in the future, even if the Black Sea Grain Initiative is not extended, it will be able to transport its grain from Odesa to world markets on commercial vessels. With kamikaze attacks, Ukrainian USVs have repeatedly damaged Russian warships at sea and in the port of Sevastopol. Therefore, it is important for Russia to stop Ukraine’s kamikaze USV attacks. Russia is trying to get Turkey’s support against Ukraine by claiming that its ships are in Turkey’s EEZ to protect the TurkStream pipeline. In fact, Russia’s real intention is to create tension between Turkey and Ukraine. To this end, it is trying to convince Turkey that Ukraine will sabotage the TurkStream pipeline in the Turkish EEZ. Ukraine is not currently capable of sabotaging TurkStream, nor does it make sense for Ukraine to engage in such an act that would directly confront Turkey.

Russia is attempting to capitalize on recent events, such as the intelligence ship attack, in order to drive a wedge between Turkey and Ukraine while also seeking to align Turkey more closely with its own interests. It is of the utmost importance that Turkey remain vigilant in the face of these efforts and take great care to protect its rights and interests.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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