Preparatory works are about to be completed on Canal Istanbul, one of the most ambitious projects of the 21st century. Once its route is announced and it goes out to tender the following months, this new project will probably become one of the most discussed topics. Although the huge project receives coverage in the media mostly for its commercial aspects, its impact is actually far more reaching. The project is not of particular interest only for Turkey, but also for Russia and the other countries of the region. For this reason it will be crucial to closely monitor its impact on international relations as well.
When talking about Istanbul, the Bosporus is no doubt among the very first subjects that come to mind. Retaining its significance throughout history, this one-of-a-kind waterway separates two continents, Europe and Asia while connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Its shores carry to the present the fascinating traces, rich histories and cultural heritages of thousand-years-old civilizations. It has tremendous geostrategic, geopolitical and economic importance for Europe, Central Asia, Caucasus, the Balkans, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The construction of Canal Istanbul will not diminish the significance of the Bosporus in anyway, yet it will put an end to Bosphorus’ unrivaled position as a passageway.
Canal Istanbul was first introduced to the public in 2011 by the then Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an "ambitious, crazy and magnificent Project." During the announcement, Erdogan stated that a centuries-old dream would be realized with this canal that will become the second strait of Istanbul. He outlined the scope of the project saying “the project I am about to reveal is a multi-dimensional project; this is an energy, transportation, public works, employment, urban planning, family, residential, cultural, tourism and above all, an environmental project".
A major undertaking, the Canal’s construction is planned to be on the European side of Istanbul. This canal, which is planned to be approximately 40 kilometers long and 150 meters wide, will connect the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara for the second time. The construction aimed to be built through the aforementioned project will allow passage for even large ships. The cost of this giant project will be over 10 billion dollars.
Since its announcement day, disparate comments were made in the Russian press and media regarding this project. Some found the construction of a new canal to be "unnecessary" while some others dubbed it "utopian". Some perceived it as a threat to Russian interests and some found it compatible therewith. So, how will Canal Istanbul actually effect the Turkish-Russian relations? The only way to answer that question is by analyzing the safety, economic and military dimensions of the project.
First of all, with regard to the safety of Istanbul, a new canal is not a luxury; on the contrary, it is a necessity. International marine transportation in the Bosporus generates a heavy maritime traffic: It is four times that of the Panama Canal, and three times that of the Suez Canal. But most importantly, the tankers passing through the Bosporus carry 150 million tons of petroleum per year as well as explosive-inflammable materials. In other words, the Bosporus actually serves as the biggest petroleum pipeline of the world. Furthermore, the number and the tonnage of the ships carrying hazardous cargo increases with every passing year. The local vessels and commercial ships that carry about two million passengers per day further thicken the traffic in the Bosporus.
There are also other factors that render the Bosporus a challenging route for mariners: Its narrow and irregular topography, sharp bends, volatile and strong currents, shallow and rocky areas, seasonal severe gales, fierce storms and occasional dense fog...
All this information is a clear indication of how big of a risk the most populous city of Europe faces; and, how absolutely necessary a second canal is.
Moreover, the safety of the Bosporus means the safety of Russia. The Bosporus is a vitally important energy corridor for Russia; it is a gateway enabling the distribution of Russian and Caspian oil to the world. The Bosporus being closed or becoming unsafe for ship traffic due to a major maritime disaster, as it happened in the past, is not a situation easily tolerable either for Turkey or Russia. Another environmental pollution caused by a tanker accident that might threaten the Black Sea will have a disastrous impact on both countries.
Oil and natural gas trade is one of the lifebloods of the Russian economy and these resources are mainly distributed to the world markets from the Black Sea ports. Any disruption in the Bosporus traffic would directly harm the Russian economy. However, regulatory precautions taken occasionally due to unfavorable weather conditions or in order to minimize the accident risk lead to inevitable delays and slowdowns in the strait traffic. The ships awaiting passage through the Bosporus cause a yearly financial loss of 1.4 billion dollars. Therefore, a second waterway in the Bosporus is a progress that will relieve both Russia and the global market. This project aims to provide an effective trade alternative for countries. Those who wish so will be able to continue to use their usual Bosporus route and Canal Istanbul would provide a different route to those who wish otherwise. Surely, this alternative passage will effectively lead to a more active trade network.
However, the biggest concern of certain Russian circles is military-related. Russia has concerns regarding matters such as the flout of the 1936 Montreux Convention that will create an atmosphere of legal uncertainty and lead up to easy access for the US-NATO warships to the Black Sea. However, this is completely an unfounded fear. The Montreux Convention still imposes severe restrictions on the passage of the warships of states that have no coasts on the Black Sea. Once again thanks to this agreement, both countries retain their positions as the two greatest military and political powers of the Black Sea; thus it creates a balance of power that helps preserve the peace and safety in the region.
Canal Istanbul is a project that will bring considerable benefit both for Turkey and Russia as well as the global world trade. Moreover, it is a fresh opportunity for further improving the bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia. As long as the two countries act in concert and collaborate in the control of their energy resources and trade routes, the global balances will shift in their favor. Of course, power balances are merely a means to strengthen bilateral relations. What is essential is the perpetual friendship and brotherhood between the two countries. Between societies linked by indestructible bonds of friendship, trade relations will always bring prosperity and abundance, and new projects will further cement this friendship.
Adnan Oktar's piece in The Daily Star: