The opposition in Turkey has sharply criticized the government’s mild response to a recent incident in which Russia fired warning shots at and boarded a Turkish-owned ship off the Turkish coast.
On Sunday armed Russian marines boarded the Şükrü Okan by helicopter some 60 kilometers (37 miles) off Turkey’s northwest coast. Moscow claimed that the raid was an inspection before the ship continued on its journey to Ukraine.
Despite the lack of a formal statement from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry on the incident, the office of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broke its silence days later, warning Moscow against further escalations in the region.
The Communication Presidency’s Disinformation Combat Center released a statement asserting that the incident took place in international waters and involved a ship registered under the flag of Palau, thus downplaying the incident.
Palau is a Pacific archipelago whose flag is often used by shipping companies to freely access international ports.
The Turkish opposition has questioned the government’s lack of a robust response.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has criticized the government’s reaction as inadequate. Retired Ambassador Namık Tan, a CHP lawmaker, said, “It seems like they’re afraid to criticize Russia. This response holds no ground whatsoever.”
Tan, who previously served as Foreign Ministry spokesman and ambassador to Washington, expressed his dissatisfaction with the declaration, saying, “The real manipulation is done by the communications presidency. In other words, the statement itself is manipulative.”
Tan pointed to the illegality and aggressive nature of Russia’s intervention on the Şükrü Okan and stressed that even if the intervention took place in international waters, the question of where Russia derives its authority is up for debate.
“Apart from all these considerations, with this illegal act, the Russian Federation has shown the audacity to interfere in Turkey’s internal affairs by not recognizing Turkey’s decision regarding the Şükrü Okan vessel, which Turkey did not consider a problem for its transit passage under the Montreux Convention.”
Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Ankara has control over the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits and can limit warship passage if it is threatened or during wartime.
Tan stressed that in diplomacy, the response to such interference would be to send a written note of protest, request information on the reasons for the action and formally protest the action.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, chairman of the CHP, also expressed his unhappiness on social media. He questioned why Turks learned about the incident through visuals distributed by the Russian Defense Ministry, rather than receiving an official statement from their own government.
The incident has fueled speculation about Erdoğan’s efforts to maintain relations with Putin, as the Turkish president has invited Putin to Turkey for discussions on resuming a UN-brokered grain export deal that had previously protected Ukraine’s grain exports. However, the agreement collapsed last month when Russia withdrew from it. Since then, tensions have escalated, with both Russia and Ukraine issuing warnings and carrying out attacks on vessels off their coasts.
Analysts suggest that Turkey’s silence may be aimed at coaxing Putin back to the negotiating table, hoping to restore the grain-export deal.
“Ankara’s silence is strange but shows it is still counting on Putin to visit and return to the grain deal,” Yörük Işık, a geopolitical analyst at the Bosphorus Observer consultancy, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Işık contends that such aggression, especially close to İstanbul, highlights a blatant disregard for Turkey’s rights.
Turkey has provided military support to Ukraine while also maintaining economic cooperation with Russia. It positions itself as a potential mediator in peace talks between Ukraine and Russia while simultaneously expressing opposition to Western sanctions against Moscow.
Russia’s boarding of the Turkish ship comes in the midst of a wider controversy involving Turkish companies aiding Russia in evading sanctions and transporting oil. According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, Beks Ship Management, founded by a Turkish textile magnate, has purchased dozens of ships, raising concerns about Russia’s ability to circumvent sanctions and fund its war in Ukraine.