While Crimea has once again functioned as an integral part of Russia since a 2014 referendum in which the vast majority of the population voted for reunification, the major air carriers and ship operators from NATO states do not offer direct fights or sea routes to any major Crimean city. That being said, it remains perfectly legal for citizens of NATO member states to visit Crimea along with all other parts of Russia. Since reunification, Crimea has attracted prominent visitors from NATO states including actor, musician and now Russo-American culture envoy Steven Seagal, American boxer Roy Jones Jr, French actor Gerard Depardieu and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to name but a few.
Now though, Turkey appears to be on the verge of becoming the first NATO member state to offer a direct transit route to the Crimean peninsula. According to Alexey Volkov, the CEO of Crimean Sea Ports, negotiations for a trans-Black Sea ferry route linking northern Turkey and southern Russia are progressing and such a route could be open to cargo traffic as early as Autumn of this year with passenger ferries becoming operational in early 2019.
While the establishment of cross-Black Sea ferry routes is not officially a political or diplomatic move, both practically and symbolically it demonstrates that Turkish officials and Russian officials will be working together towards expanded economic and human development in a region of Russia that remains shunned by Turkey’s other NATO colleagues. This itself is indicative of the increasingly warm relations between Turkey and Russia which have only been enhanced due to Donald Trump seemingly going out of his way to antagonise Turkey with both direct threats and what Turks justifiably believe are insults.
Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years. They are now holding our wonderful Christian Pastor, who I must now ask to represent our Country as a great patriot hostage. We will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man, but we are cutting back on Turkey!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 16, 2018
While Trump claims that Turkey has “taken advantage” of the US, in reality Turkey has been a highly reliable partner of America, beginning from entering the US led Korean war in 1950 in spite of Turkey standing to gain little from fighting in a conflict far from its frontiers. Today, while Turkey builds and expands its partnerships with countries as diverse as South Africa, China, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia and the ASEAN nations, Turkey also seeks good relations with the US and EU as part of a larger multipolar strategy. However, in the case of the US especially, it would appear that under Donald Trump, America is willing to risk a strategic military partnership on the altar of protectionism.
It is against this background that the cross-Black Sea ferries to Russia take on all the more impact not least because Turkey still does not officially recognise Crimea and Sevastopol as integral parts of the territory of the Russian Federation. For Turkey though, this has always been a specific matter of what can be called historical pride as prior to Crimea and the surrounding Novorossiya becoming part of the Russian Empire in the 18th century, the sparsely populated territories were in fact part of the Ottoman Empire. While Turkey has no modern claims to the Russian region, symbolically, Turkey did have a clear emotional context in which it joined its otherwise emotionally disinterested European partners in failing to recognise the self-determination of the Crimean people in 2014.
While the official Turkish position is not necessarily likely to change later this year, cooperation with Russia in the Black Sea has always been symptomatic of high points in Russo-Turkish relations. In 1841, a weakened Ottoman Empire was coerced by Britain and France into signing the Treaty of London which forbade any non-Ottoman ships from traversing the Turkish Straits during war time. This agreement was designed to provoke maximum hostilities between Russia and Turkey by forcing the Ottoman leadership to prohibit Russian ships from exiting the Black Sea during times of crisis.
This atmosphere changed when during the the early decades of Ataturk’s Republican Turkey, Ankara and Moscow developed a warm relationship. While after the First World War, the victorious western powers attempted to seize sovereignty of the Turkish Straits under the context of “internationalising” them, Ataturk refused to surrender this indivisible part of Turkey’s territory. Instead, in 1936 Ataturk agreed to the still active Montreux Convention which allows all countries with Black Sea fleets to exit the Turkish Straits in time of war or peace while foreign ships will not be able to enter during a time of war. This fair and honest arrangement made between the Soviet Union, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania remains in place to this day with the inclusion of several post-Soviet states.
Today, as relations between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan look to exceed even the positive status of relations between Lenin and Ataturk, Russia and Turkey are again cooperating over matters concerning the Black Sea. This seemingly small development is an important sign of just how far Russia and Turkey will continue to cooperate at a time when they not only have clear shared interests as mutual participants in China’s One Belt–One Road initiative but also at a time when Russia and Turkey are now facing many of the same challenges from the same geopolitical sources.