At the gates of the Black Sea, trade is in full swing as cargo ships and tankers sail from the heart of Istanbul to Russian and Ukrainian ports.
Just after the Russian offensive in Ukraine on February 24 and the first Western sanctions, the largest ships of the international companies plying these waters were replaced by smaller ships.
The total number of ships on the route remains around the pre-war level of 40,000, experts say.
“Russia shamelessly steals Ukrainian grain and sends it overseas from Crimea, including to Turkey,” said Vasyl Bodnar, Ukraine’s ambassador to Ankara.
“For the month of May alone, we counted at least 10 passages, including two round trips by three ships flying the Russian flag… Not to mention those that we would have missed collectively.”
From his terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, Yoruk Isik has been an avid observer of ship movements on this key waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean for a decade now.
While quickly condemning the Russian offensive in Ukraine, Turkey positioned itself as a neutral mediator and refused to join Western sanctions against Moscow.
Although Ankara has banned the passage of military vessels through its Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits since late February under the 1936 Treaty of Montreux, it is not legally authorized to intercept or search commercial vessels, it said. a diplomatic source in Ankara.
“We don’t track ships leaving the strait. We watch them 10 kilometers before they enter and 10 kilometers after they leave,” the source said on condition of anonymity.
Elizabete Aunina, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, said: “If we look at the vague words of the Treaty of Montreux, it leaves a lot to interpretation.
“It did not foresee that merchant ships could carry stolen goods…Turkey has already shown some commitment to sticking to the very basic interpretation of the Convention as a way to also protect itself from a deeper entry into the conflict”.
The European Union has imposed an embargo on Russian imports but tankers flying the Greek or Maltese flag cross the Bosphorus to the Black Sea to Russian ports.
– Maritime corridors –
Thanks to real-time tracking applications, a strong network of observers, Russian and Ukrainian activists and satellite images, no vessel escapes Isik’s radar.
“We can see from end to end, where ship is loaded by ship,” he said.
Some freighters loaded the wheat in Ukrainian ports under Russian blockade like Odessa, Chornomorsk or Mariupol, he said.
The destination? Syria – where Russia retains an operational base – then Lebanon or Egypt.
Isik also identified a flotilla of old Turkish boats, “never seen before in the region” suddenly appearing under a flag of convenience in the Russian port of Novorossiysk — “probably under contract with the Russian government”.
He lists a few names: Kocatepe (now Tanzanian), Barbaros (Equatorial Guinea), Hizir (Malta) and Sampiyon Trabzonsport (Cameroon).
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Turkey on Wednesday to discuss a possible establishment of “maritime corridors”, although Ukrainian wheat is secretly exported for the benefit of Russia, according to experts.
“This is the information we get but we cannot stop, verify or question the intent of a cargo ship unless we sense a threat to Turkish peace or security,” the diplomatic source said.
But for Isik, who keeps the list of cargo ships belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense and those of private companies operating on its behalf, “what is happening is unacceptable”.
– EU considers tougher sanctions –
Before the war, Ukraine was on the way to becoming the world’s third largest exporter of wheat and many countries in Africa and the Middle East depend on it.
“If Russia exports Ukrainian products, nobody allows Turkey to stop the ships,” said Yucel Acer, professor of international law at Ankara University, adding “unless there is a United Nations resolution” – a futile decision as long as Russia holds veto power in the Security Council.
Without openly admitting it, the European Commission has found holes in the current sanctions regime and is preparing to tighten the screw again, a source in Brussels said.
These include a new round of sanctions aimed at Moscow’s plans to deprive European operators of their insurance if their ships are caught red-handed.
“Most of these ships are covered by European and British insurance: with this new package, they will no longer be able to use them”, specifies the source.
“That should have a significant impact.”
But Turkey could do more, said Aunina of the University of Amsterdam.
“After the annexation of Crimea, Turkey technically banned ships from Crimea in its ports: that could be done too!”