Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a monumental vision for his country’s largest city: building a new mega canal through Istanbul. Of course, Istanbul is already home to the Bosporus Strait, whose bisection of Europe and Asia has been fought over in numerous wars throughout history and inspired numerous cliches. Nevertheless, Erdogan’s plans raise the prospect that the geostrategic map of the Black Sea may soon be recast.
Erdogan has floated the construction of “Canal Istanbul” for many years, dubbing it his “crazy project.” In late June 2021, he held a groundbreaking ceremony for the project, estimated to cost at least $15 billion. The project is ostensibly aimed at alleviating delays on shipping through the Bosporus and providing a much-needed boost to the Turkish economy in the process. Erdogan’s critics have long accused him and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of using state infrastructure projects to enrich allies and supporters. Yet, significant doubts remain as to the canal’s feasibility and sincerity, with many keen observers of Turkish developments noting the major hurdles in securing financing and Ankara’s own deteriorating economic circumstances.
However, the canal should not be seen primarily as a domestic project, but rather one of outmost geopolitical significant. It marks the apex of Erdogan’s attempts to redraw the balance of power in the Black Sea through his ongoing efforts to establish Ankara as an activist power. In recent years, Erdogan’s foreign policy has reshaped the region. He has intervened in Syria, effectively establishing a buffer zone in its north. He has upset the status quo in the Eastern Mediterranean, first signing a controversial agreement with his Libyan allies to redraw the region’s maritime border and also calling for the formal partitioning of Cyprus, both of which are reversals of Turkey’s longstanding positions. Erdogan has expanded Ankara’s influence in Azerbaijan, through its crucial support in the 2020 war, even as the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization remained neutral. Erdogan has also not shied away from selling military hardware, including its lauded drones, across the Black Sea to Ukraine.
Turkey is a rising Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, European, and Eurasian power. Control of access to their intersection at the Black Sea is particularly important if Turkey is to graduate from being a multi-regional power to a true great power.
A Canal to Power
The Black Sea region has been home to both of Europe’s 21st century wars: Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and the Kremlin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, and continued hostilities in the Donbas.
Put simply, control of access to and from the Black Sea remains a major geopolitical fault line. Historically, the Bosporus and Istanbul have been the site of many of the great historical shifts in power, from the shift of the Roman Empire to the 1453 seizure of then-Constantinople by the Ottomans. Yet, Turkey has not faced a serious threat to its control of the straits since tensions with the Soviet Union drove Ankara to join NATO in 1952. It should therefore be of little surprise that geopolitical factors have played a major, perhaps decisive role, in Erdogan’s canal gambit.
The extent to which Erdogan is willing to risk this stability is underpinned by his warning that the canal will not be governed by the Montreux Convention, the 1936 treaty on access to the Bosporus, Sea of Marmara, and Dardanelles (though the canal will only replace the former). The convention enabled Ankara to remilitarize the area, reversing the Treaty of Lausanne in exchange for a blanket promise of free passage of merchant vessels as well as most warships. In other words, the convention is what enables NATO to send its ships to defend its interests in the Black Sea, or at least signal an intent to do so. It also provides Russia access to the Mediterranean, for its significant southern commercial ports, such as Rostov-on-Don, and for its Black Sea fleet, which would otherwise risk being constrained to its own littoral like Russia’s far-less prestigious Caspian Sea fleet.
Turkey’s sovereignty over the Bosporus is not the only factor making it a significant player. Turkey is home to NATO second-largest military. Its Incirlik Air Base hosts a part of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent and key commands for operations elsewhere in the Middle East. Romania and Bulgaria, while NATO member states on the Black Sea littoral, do not have any significant naval capacity.
NATO has very real security concerns in the region, particularly in relation to those littoral states who have clashed with Moscow over their desire for closer ties with the West. Although Ukraine continues to control the Donbas’ ports—in large part, a result of having struck a devil’s bargain with one of the key oligarchs behind the former Yanukovych administration—its access to the Black Sea remains subject to Russia’s control of the Kerch Strait, and it lacks the naval capability to defend its ports in Odessa and Mykolaiv against Russia. The latter pair, as with Georgia’s ports in Batumi and Poti, host NATO visits and training efforts precisely because of their exposure to Russia. NATO can only offer the hope of an alternative if it can actually show up.
As Russia has solidified control of the Black Sea’s northern and eastern flanks, Turkey’s relations with NATO have grown increasingly cold. The cooling in Western-Turkish relations has, in large part, been driven by Erdogan’s own impetus, seeking to remake Turkey as the global power it was in its Ottoman heyday. An assertive Turkey internationally helps him sell his image as a historic leader domestically. This is not limited to pure military considerations, either. Erdogan recognizes Turkey’s centrality to oil and natural gas routes from Azerbaijan. He has made clear that Turkey seeks an even greater role in natural gas geopolitics of late by sparring with Greece and Cyprus over drilling rights in the Aegean Sea.
Despite the ever-expanding set of topics on which Turkey and the West have significant disagreements, the West appears to have no firm position on how it will accommodate Turkey’s more activist role on the international stage.
The Route to the Canal
The canal gambit is but the latest step in Ankara’s development of a heavily expansionist foreign policy over the last five years. The extent of this gamble can only be understood by contrasting this period with Erdogan’s first decade in power, when Ankara very much did not have an activist foreign policy. Instead, as then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu laid out to Foreign Policy in 2010, it operated a policy of “zero problems towards neighbors,” with fairly consistent success: avoiding becoming enmeshed in the Georgia-Russia war, campaigning in support of a 2004 referendum on a peace plan for reuniting Cyprus, progressing ties with the European Union, helping to progress ties with both Iran and its Arab rivals, and even brokering a number of regional peace efforts even if they ultimately proved abortive.
Erdogan’s foreign policy approach began to change in light of the Arab Spring. While the protest movement saw relations cool between the Obama administration and many Arab governments—concerned that Washington could turn on them and embrace the street as it did in Egypt—for Erdogan, the Arab Spring offered the potential of ushering in a host of governments in the mold of his own AK Party, adherents of political Islam. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and many others saw this as a backdoor to legitimizing the Muslim Brotherhood in the region and internationally, opening the door to challenges to their own legitimacy.
Ankara, then, found itself in an increasingly hostile region, in which Erdogan’s precedent was perceived as more of a threat than model to other regional actors. The subsequent years chafed matters further, as the West appeared to support Gulf-backed interventions in the Syrian conflict, but opposed Turkey doing so. The subsequent migrant crisis proved a breaking point with much of the European political establishment. The breaking point with Washington came after the July 2016 coup attempt, which—whether sincere or not—Erdogan immediately blamed on U.S.-based cleric and erstwhile ally Fetullah Gülen. Aggravated by the Obama administration’s initial failure to label it a coup attempt, Erdogan became convinced he could no longer rely on Washington for support against threats foreign or domestic.
As a result, Erdogan felt—and continues to feel—that Ankara sits relatively isolated on the southern shores of the Black Sea.
A Bipolar Black Sea
Erdogan’s disposition towards the West following the coup attempt set the stage for his rapid rapprochement with Russia. Never mind that Russian-Turkish relations had recently fallen to a modern nadir after the November 2015 shootdown of a Russian SU-24 by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet. By the following August, shortly after the aborted coup attempt, Erdogan would travel to Russia for a bilateral conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The summit set in motion the purchase of the S-400 missile system that ultimately prompted U.S. sanctions.
It is not incidental that Turkey’s renewed approach to Moscow culminated with the reverberations of the failed coup on its relationship with the West, and in particular the United States. Ankara managed to improve relations with Moscow so significantly, even while dramatically escalating its intervention in Syria with Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016.
Despite this hasty harmonization, Russian-Turkish relations have not yet graduated to a new plateau. Competition between them remains significant, across a number of conflicts. In addition to Syria, Erdogan and Putin backed opposite sides in the Libyan conflict. Russia was ostensibly Armenia’s ally in the 2020 conflict flare-up over Nagorno-Karabakh, while Turkey was steadfastly aligned with Azerbaijan, supplying the drone technology that crucially turned the tide in Baku’s favor (and in turn raised the prospect of the first permanent non-Russian military presence in the South Caucasus since the 1921 Treaty of Kars). Erdogan’s recent actions in Cyprus also threaten to destabilize one of the few EU members where Moscow has sought to be a stabilizing force, due to the role that Cyprus plays in Russia’s kleptocratic economy.
What is remarkable is that amid all of these spats, it is primarily Turkish-Western relations that have suffered, while Russian-Turkish ties have not. The West’s approach to Erdogan’s foreign policy agenda is often dismissive or even antagonistic. Ankara has “gone it alone” in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan—more often than not in direct opposition to other NATO members’ preferred course of action. Yet, Putin has not opposed Ankara’s rise as an activist power—something that it is impossible to envision the Kremlin doing for any other NATO member—precisely because he has recognized that alienating Ankara from NATO is a more valuable goal than the extent of any sphere of influence in these conflicts.
Erdogan has experienced a Russia with whom “he can do business,” albeit of the power play variety, because Russia makes little secret of the fact that it sees Turkey’s roles as doing more to strain relations within the Alliance than it brings a security threat to Moscow’s doorstep. Erdogan will feel confident that Putin may be willing to entertain a further gambit. He has not been shy about his willingness to tease further expanding relations in his latest tete-a-tete with Putin on September 29.
In this light, the the canal gambit and the Montreux Convention threats mark the extent to which Erdogan is willing to ignore international norms and warnings, especially those emanating from the West.
Of course, Erdogan does not actually need to build the Istanbul Canal to repudiate the Montreux Convention. No set of defined consequences for tearing up such an agreement exists. Tearing up the convention would risk making Ankara something of an international pariah, however, as it would be seen as playing with fire regarding not only the security of other Black Sea littoral states and the east Mediterranean but also regarding Europe’s trade and energy access.
Tearing up the Montreux Convention—new canal or no canal—would certainly anger NATO. It might even risk rupturing Ankara’s link to the Alliance given the Biden administration and the European Union’s stated support for international institutions and norms. It would certainly anger Moscow, but Erdogan has reason to believe that he can make a new deal more accommodating of his position with Moscow.
Given the exorbitant cost of the canal and doubts over its eventual completion, the project may well be more about drawing attention to Erdogan’s demand that the geopolitical influence and power that he has amassed in recent years has earned him a seat among the world’s major players.
Erdogan’s Turkey has clearly established itself as a rising power, with aspirations of even greater things on the horizon. Whether or not the canal proves feasible or affordable, it symbolizes Turkey’s desire to be treated as a geopolitical heavyweight and to have a seat at the table in discussions of the future of Eurasia, the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. Given this already reflects regional realities, it is foolhardy for the West to continue to treat Turkey merely as a secondary regional power contented by its role in NATO.