Why did Turkey participate in the Sea Breeze 2021 naval exercise on a low key?

Why did Turkey participate in the Sea Breeze 2021 naval exercise on a low key?

By Elif İlhamoğlu

The Sea Breeze 2021 naval exercise, which the United States and the NATO alliance have launched on June 28th off the coasts of Ukraine despite Russian reactions, is still continuing. The exercise, planned to end on July 11th, is continuing to create higher tensions in the Black Sea.

The United States has emphasized that the exercise would “demonstrate that the Black Sea is a part of international waters”, while Russia has stated that “such a provocation, which is seeking to turn the Black Sea to a NATO lake, will not go unanswered”. The western media has perceived this exercise as a ‘challenge to Russia’, while the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “The scale and clearly aggressive nature of the Sea Breeze exercises in no way corresponds to the real tasks of security in the Black Sea region”, claiming that the main purpose of this exercise was to supply Ukraine with weapons and military equipment.

A few days ago, the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Air Fleet from the Southern Military Region have conducted training flights over the Black Sea, where NATO’s Sea Breeze 2021 exercise is currently underway. “Aircraft crews of the Black Sea Fleet and the Southern Military Region conducted training flights over the Black Sea, practicing missile and bombing strikes against simulated enemy ships”, the Black Sea Fleet said in a statement. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that “The Sea Breeze 2021 exercise shows our solidarity against the military threats intensifying in the Black Sea region and that we will not allow the freedom of navigation in the Black Sea to be restricted”, clearly pointing out the Russian presence in the Black Sea.

On the other hand, Turkey’s participation to the naval exercise, with the TCG Barbaros Frigate, was deemed as on a ‘low key’.

We have discussed the recent tensions in the Black Sea and the Turkish stance on this issue, with the former Head of Intelligence at the Chief of Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, retired Lieutenant General Ismail Hakki Pekin.

‘Turkey does not want tensions in the Black Sea’

How is Turkey’s position concerning NATO presence in the Black Sea?

Turkey has for quite a time rejected NATO’s entrance to the Black Sea and possible consequential high tensions. Therefore, Ankara had started two initiatives: the Black Sea Harmony operation and the Black Sea Naval Force, with the cooperation from the Black Sea littoral countries. Our Navy and the Naval Forces of other Black Sea countries operated jointly in such exercises. However, these initiatives could never be implemented due to NATO expansion towards Russia and to Georgia, the Orange Revolution in the latter and the tensions in Ukraine. Nevertheless, Turkey never wanted a foreign power, even the NATO, to conduct exercises in the Black Sea and to raise tensions, targeting Russia. We implemented the Montreux Convention quite properly in this aspect. Turkey is acting very sensitively on this issue and avoids any activities that will escalate the tensions in the region.

‘They have checked on Russia’s tolerance’

How is your evaluation of the current NATO exercise?

The Sea Breeze 2021 naval exercise has been conducted on a yearly basis since 1997, but this year, it is organized on a larger scale. Various actions that would increase tensions were already carried out in the region prior to this exercise. The American attempts to expand and strengthen NATO, activities to establish dominance over the Black Sea, military drills in the Balkans, exercises with the cooperation of Greece in the Western Thrace Region and the Defender Europe 21 exercise have all heavily strained the atmosphere in particular. The possible purpose of the Sea Breeze 2021 exercise is to test Russia and push its limits of tolerance. Anti-Russian activities have been stepped up recently in Ukraine and Georgia.

Even before this exercise, the UK sent ships there and Russia retaliated with warning shots. “We could have sunk this ship and there would still be no war”, Russian President Putin said in a statement on the topic. The UK has only checked on Russia’s tolerance with the support of the United States. Russia has taken the necessary measures and declared, “a war will not break out”, thus sending the message that “the West cannot dare to start the fight with Russia”. It is clear that the US is behind these actions to raise tensions. While the UK is trying to send a message to Russia through this showdown, the other European countries are trying to establish a contact with Russia through mutual intelligence offices. Thus, the NordStream-2 continues.

‘Turkey doesn’t want to confront Russia’

What is the future of these exercises and what will be Turkey’s position?

I do not think there will be too much going on at the end of this naval exercise. We are going to see a lot of these kinds of activities and exercises in the region from now on. And these will bother us as well. The Black Sea is very crucial for us. The United States do not treat the Black Sea as an ordinary body of water. They perceive it as a part of a bigger piece that starts from the Balkans to the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus Mountains and all the way to Central Asia. Therefore, we are going to see a lot of military diplomacies over the seas from now.

Turkey has decided on a lower-level participation to this exercise, since it did not want to confront Russia and the other Black Sea countries. Turkey already knows that this naval exercise was conducted against Russia, and that their aim is to weaken the Russian influence in the region. Of course, Turkey is very keen on developing good relations with Ukraine, but on the other hand Russia is a neighbor and a larger power, and Ankara wants to develop good relations with it. Therefore, Turkey does not want to engage in any activities that challenge and provoke Russia in this regard.

So, as I have said, these exercises will keep on coming. There will also be exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean. The West will keep on its exercises against Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean, since Russia also holds a reasonable amount of power in that region as well. Therefore, such engagements and raises in tensions may keep on coming. Of course, I do not think that these tensions can lead to a full-fledged war. But like I said, we are going to see much more of these military diplomacies over the seas from now on.

Ismail Hakkı Pekin
Retired Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakkı Pekin is the former Head of Turkey’s General Staff Intelligence Agency between 2007-2011. He was born in 1951 in Iznik. He is married and is the father of two children.

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February 2024