The ‘amateur’ spies of the Bosphorus: the war in Ukraine turns Istanbul into the new iron curtain

Today is an important day, but Yörük’s nerves do not attack him because what he is going to do in a while he has already done a thousand times. He is calm, sitting, waiting for the freighter makes the route what is supposed to Nothing will go wrong because everything is under control.

“Today I have come to look for a Russian merchant that makes the route in a northerly direction. Departed from Sevastopol, Crimeaand transited the Bosphorus towards the Mediterranean in early May, carrying wheat stolen from Ukraine. First, the crew had marked the final destination as Alexandria, in Egypt. But it was a lie: he was going to Syria. Now go back to the Black Sea, to continue with the route”, explains Yörük Isik, who takes out the phone.

“This is it,” says this good-natured, corpulent man with a white beard and long hair, while controls maritime traffic via an app from your phone. “Now it’s down there, right at the entrance to the strait. It’ll catch us in a while,” explains Yörük as points to the south in the direction of the great mosques and imperial palaces that mark the silhouette of the historic peninsula of Istanbul.

The Bosphorus in sight

If there is someone in the city who knows the Bosphorus to the millimeter, the sea route that cuts the largest city in Europe in half, this is undoubtedly Yörük Isik, geopolitical analyst at the ‘think tank’ Middle East Institute and expert in everything that happens at sea. Yörük spends weeks up and down the strait, crossing it by ferry and photographing all shipsIt’s interesting that they go through it. Today’s promises to be.

“These kinds of Russian ships with wheat stolen from Ukraine have also reached Turkey. It’s unbelievable. It happens in front of everyone’s eyes and nobody says anything, despite the fact that the official order of the Turkish Government is not to accept them. And yet, they are still there,” complains Yörük.

But the Russian freighter hasn’t entered the Bosphorus yet, so the man relaxes; his camera is still in the bag; he, distracted, looks at one of the most famous landscapes in the world. Navigating the Bosphorus with Yörük is navigating, at the same time, the history of the city between continents, touring its forgotten palaces, the global and regional intrigues and conspiracies that took place in them; the empires that were born here and came to die here, on the shore of the Bosphorus.

Russian threats

But, of course, it is not only to observe the past built on the coast. It is also seeing the present and the future, through what happens and passes through the sea. It’s not enough just to see. One has to know how to look.

It all happened in early February. The whole world, at that time, was debating whether or not the Russian threats to invade Ukraine were a streetlight. Almost everyone thought that nothing would happen, that it would make no sense.

But then, in early February, in the dead of winter, three weeks before the start of the war, they started coming. “Among those of us who dedicate ourselves to this, we all work as a team, because one alone cannot see everything. We have colleagues observing the North Sea, the Baltic, the Strait of Gibraltar… We talk to each other, we use satellite images and we know when ships pass even if they turn off their transmitters. So we saw that in the first week of February six Russian ships were coming to the Black Sea much faster than normal, Yörük recalls.

Tanks, armored vehicles and trucks

They weren’t normal ships: they were landing ships, huge ships with capacity to transport, inside, tanks, armored vehicles, trucks and soldiers. Russia already had six of those in the Black Sea; now there would be 12.

“His passage was the greatest indicator that Russia wanted to attack Ukrainea –explains Devrim Yaylali, another maritime observer who sells his photos to specialized military magazines–. They are ships that can reach the enemy’s coast and land, as in Normandy. According to Montreal Convention (which governs the passage of warships in the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits), the transit of a foreign ship has to start during the day. Normally, they cross the Dardanelles in the morning, and the next day they arrive in Istanbul and enter the Black Sea in the afternoon. But this time it was different. They crossed the Bosphorus at night, in a hurry.”

“That’s when I realized that Russia he wasn’t just threatening. All this happened between February 8 and 9. It was very frustrating to see what was going to happen without being able to do anything. Nobody wants a war and even less if it is from one country invading another,” says Yaylali.

cameras and binoculars

With the war in Ukraine –and also with the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict–, Istanbul and the Bosphorus have seen their geopolitical importance revived. In the city of two continents, a community of observers has been born, some of whom take out their binoculars and cameras as a hobby.

And they, now, are the ones who pick up the witness – something less glamorous, of course – of the cold war istanbula city of spies, secret surveillance operations and international struggles.

“During all those years, Turkey assumed a very important role in the control of the straits, which were a crucial point both for the Soviet Union and for the other countries of Eastern Europe. Turkey could block, if he wanted, the entire Soviet naval forces in the Black Sea. And this is one of the reasons why Turkey entered NATO in the 1950s,” he explains. Mensur Akgunacademician and professor at Istanbul’s Kültür University.

“During World War II and the years after, countries like Turkey became a fighting arena for spies. And Istanbul, of course, was a key location. Plus, this geostrategic position had a great impact on Turkey. It first led to the first democratization of the country, and then to NATO accession,” continues Akgün.

loss of relevance

With the disappearance of the USSR in 1991, however, the Bosphorus lost its military importance. It was still one of the largest lines of world trade trafficbut international observers stopped paying attention to Istanbul.

Until 2015. “Since the beginning of the campaign Russian military in Syria Until now, with the war in the Ukraine, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles have once again become a very important military point. All this makes Russia strategically dependent on Turkey, as Turkey is also very dependent on Russia. That is why Ankara has tried to be so involved in ending the conflict in Ukraine,” Akgün explains.

It is already late afternoon when there, under the bridge that crosses the Bosphorus, appears, in the distance, the ship that is the object of Yörük’s wishes. “There it is,” he exclaims. the Matros Koshka! In Russian it means the Sailor Cat. They’re a bit sloppy, because the name was recently changed and they’ve painted it over the old one. They do this in case someone decides to hold the ship. So the Russians disengage.”

kilometer telescope

From this point, Yörük springs into action. The man unholsters his camera and mounts his kilometric telescopic lens. “I have an even bigger one,” he says, smiling. And from here, the man enters a battle with the wavesagainst which he fights to get the best possible frame.

There is time: as the Bosphorus is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, giant ships like the Sailor Cat have to pass Istanbul in a lethargic walkalmost calm.

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“The photos that we manage to take here help us to better identify the ships. If, for example, we get good photos of the bridge, we can portray its characteristics, which will then help us to find said ship by satellite. Although in the end, of course, the most important volume of work we do is monitoring. The photographs are like the icing on the cake.”Yörük says.

Already with the task done, the merchant disappears after the end of the Bosphorus, in the direction of the Black Sea. From there, she will probably return to Sevastopol, Crimea, where it will be loaded again with your precious merchandise to repeat the process again. In a few weeks, the Sailor Cat will cross Istanbul again, this time heading south, and it will remain what it is now: a Russian ship transporting wheat stolen from Ukraine.

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