Brake on Russian warships tilts Turkey west, risks Russia’s wrath

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A Turkish flag flies next to the NATO logo at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, November 26, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

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ANKARA, Feb 28 (Reuters) – Turkey’s pledge to prevent some Russian warships from crossing its waters into the Black Sea during the Ukraine crisis could help restore its ties with NATO, even if it risks retaliation from Moscow.

But a buildup of Russian ships waiting to make the trip will test Ankara’s resolve over the next few days and show how far it is willing to go to tip its particularly delicate diplomatic balance between East and South. ‘Where is.

Turkey changed its rhetoric to call Moscow’s assault on Ukraine a “war” on Sunday – a move that would allow Ankara to use parts of an international pact to limit the transit of some Russian warships from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Read more

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That could limit Moscow’s ability to bolster its naval force attacking Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, though it all depends on the fine print of the 1936 Montreux Convention.

The pact allows Turkey to limit naval transit of its Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits during wartime, but includes a clause exempting ships from returning to their registered base.

At least four Russian ships are currently awaiting Turkey’s decision to cross the Mediterranean, said Yoruk Isik, an Istanbul-based geopolitical analyst and head of consultancy Bosphorus Observer.

Two of them – a frigate and a destroyer – officially requested to make the trip as early as this week, according to Isik and a senior Turkish official. Any of them claiming the Black Sea as their base could still make the trip, leaving Turkey with some leeway.

“Calling it a ‘war’ is a very big step,” Isik told Reuters. “Ankara did not want to take this step and, with language, gives Moscow one last chance to stem the aggression in Ukrainian cities.”

HIGH STAKES

The stakes are high for Turkey, a NATO member, which has maritime borders and good relations with Russia and Ukraine.

A decided shift to the West could elevate its position in NATO after Turkey’s 2019 purchase of Russian S-400 missiles soured relations and triggered US sanctions.

Still, any step too far could hurt Turkey’s economy already beleaguered after a currency crisis in December and spiraling inflation.

Russian natural gas accounts for 45% of Turkish imports, while Russians account for 20% of Turkish tourists.

Atilla Yesilada of GlobalSource Partners said Turkey’s move in the conflict was “almost certain to draw Russian ire”, and that it would result in bans on Turkish agricultural exports or provocations in Syria.

A separate official with knowledge of the matter said the Turkish government planned to take steps to stimulate the economy now that the fallout from the conflict is being felt “more and more day by day”. The lira briefly fell 5% last week at the start of the attacks – which Russia calls a “special operation”.

Meanwhile, Turkish politicians have kept their own measured rhetoric.

President Tayyip Erdogan has criticized Moscow’s Western approach, including the use of sanctions, while taking a scathing tone towards Russia, calling the invasion ‘unacceptable’ and a ‘death blow’ to regional security .

While forging close energy and defense ties with Russia, Ankara sold drones to Ukraine and signed a deal to co-produce more, angering Moscow.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called on his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts for a ceasefire and negotiations, which Erdogan offered to host. Read more

Cavusoglu said Sunday that ships returning to their base in the Black Sea will be allowed through and assessed on a case-by-case basis.

When it came to establishing the ships’ all-important home station, he added, “Everything should be transparent.”

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Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun; Editing by Andrew Heavens

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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