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[ANALYSIS] Putin is navigating dangerous waters to test Turkey’s red line

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Fatih Yurtsever*

The Russian warship Vasily Bykov, on a mission to patrol shipping lanes in the southwestern part of the Black Sea, forcibly stopped the Palau-flagged, Turkish-owned dry-cargo ship Şükrü Okan as it headed for the Ukrainian port of Izmail. According to a statement made by the Russian Defense Ministry on Sunday, Russian sailors carried by a Ka-29 helicopter from Vasily Bykov were dropped onto the merchant vessel Şükrü Okan to inspect the potential transport of prohibited goods. According to the Equasis database, the Palau-flagged Şükrü Okan is a general cargo ship owned and operated by Turkey’s OG Shipping Limited. The captain and crew of the ship are Turkish citizens.

In July, after having halted participation in the Black Sea grain deal that allowed Ukraine to export agricultural produce via the Black Sea, Russia said it deemed all ships heading to Ukrainian ports as potentially carrying weapons. It is understood that Şükrü Okan was also stopped and inspected by a Russian warship on suspicion of carrying arms to Ukraine, despite being a general cargo ship heading to Izmail, the main export route for Ukrainian agricultural products. Although a few days have passed since the incident, Turkey chose to keep silent. However, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s office shared a post on Thursday on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The statement said the Şükrü Okan cargo ship boarded by Russian assets was registered in Palau and that the incident took place on the high seas, not in Turkish territorial waters. “After the [Russian] intervention, our interlocutors in the Russian Federation were appropriately warned to avoid such attempts that escalate tensions in the Black Sea,” the Turkish presidency said. Erdoğan’s office hit back at its critics on Thursday, arguing that it was technically up to Palau to respond to the incident. “In international law, the ‘flag state’ is more important than the name of the ship or the [nationality] of its personnel.” Palau is a Pacific archipelago whose flag is often used by shipping companies to gain free access to international ports.

The Russian Defense Ministry’s statement does not contain any information on the legal justification for the boarding operation. According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which Russia is a signatory, the high seas are open to all states and no state may subject any part of them to its sovereignty. However, there are specific conditions under which a warship can stop, visit or inspect the cargo of a merchant ship on the high seas. Article 110 of UNCLOS outlines that a warship which encounters a foreign ship on the high seas, in circumstances that give reasonable grounds for suspecting that the ship is engaged in piracy, the slave trade, unauthorized broadcasting, is without nationality or is in violation of conditions set by the ship’s flag state, has the right to board it for inspection.

Russia’s current actions appear to treat the Black Sea as though it were exclusively its own domain. Asserting the right to halt all commercial vessels bound for Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea’s international waters, ostensibly in order to block the shipment of arms to Ukrainian ports, undermines fundamental tenets of international maritime law, most notably the principle of freedom of navigation. Turkish merchant shipping is also affected by this situation. Some commercial ships in the Turkish Merchant Marine fleet fly the flags of other countries to benefit from certain tax benefits. Therefore, Turkey took the wrong approach by not reacting immediately to Russia’s boarding of a merchant ship operated by a Turkish company and whose crew is Turkish, in violation of international maritime law, saying that the ship carries the flag of Palau and therefore Palau should react to the unlawfulness first.

In the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, the boarding by Israeli commandos of a Comoros-flagged aid ship, part of a flotilla attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, Turkey immediately reacted strongly to the incident, even though the ship was not flying the Turkish flag.

Another prominent aspect of the Şükrü Okan incident is that it reveals that the cooperation mechanisms established between Turkey and Russia within the scope of Operation Black Sea Harmony, a maritime security operation conducted by the Turkish Navy in the Black Sea, have lost their functionality. The operation began in March 2004 in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 1373, 1540 and 1566, which aim to deter terrorism and asymmetric threats in the Black Sea region. Black Sea Harmony is a multinational operation, and the navies of Russia, Ukraine and Romania have joined it. The Turkish Navy coordinates the operation, which is conducted according to international law, and it has been credited with disrupting a number of illegal activities in the Black Sea, such as arms smuggling, human trafficking and drug trafficking.

Therefore, if Russia had intended to prevent illegal arms smuggling or terrorism in the Black Sea, it should have done the following: Before the Russian Navy boarded the Şükrü Okan, it could have obtained information about the ship’s cargo and activities from the Operation Black Sea Harmony Coordination Center and informed the Turkish Navy about the boarding operation.

The close cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine in the defense industry, the decisions taken at the NATO summit in Vilnius in July and the new conditions that have emerged since then — Russia’s suspension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Turkey’s need for financial support, especially from EU countries and the United States, to get out of the economic crisis it is in — make it imperative to hold a new bilateral summit between President Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin to give direction to the future of Turkey-Russia relations. In order to sit at the table with a strong hand and get what he wants, Putin is trying to test Turkey’s red line to gauge its reaction and understand its limits. The Şükrü Okan incident should be seen in this light. Turkey must remind Russia that the Black Sea is not a “Russian lake.” However, the way to do this is not to ignore Russia’s behavior, which violates international maritime law, but to protect the ships of its merchant fleet in the Black Sea, even if they do not fly its flag.

* 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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