RUSSIA and Turkey have fired initial salvoes in a wide-ranging conflict over freedom of navigation in the vulnerable, overcrowded shipping lanes separating the Black Sea from the Mediterranean.
The confrontation will decide Europe's access to the enormous hydrocarbon reserves of the Caspian Sea region in the next century and the share of economic and political advantage the two rivals will derive from that traffic.
Their dispute ostensibly concerns navigation rights, safety, and traffic schedules in the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits as well as marine ecology in the polluted Black Sea. These are sensitive issues for all parties, but both Turkey and Russia are looking well beyond them.
They are defending rival multibillion-dollar investments in pipelines and oil terminals linking the Caspian production fields with the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. These links will redraw the trade and energy-supply maps of the Middle East and Europe. The Caspian region - part of former Soviet Central Asia - holds oil and natural-gas reserves rivaling even those of the Persian Gulf.
The known oil reserves of just two fields in Azerbaijan are put at 4.5 billion barrels; their estimated reserves are several times greater and could generate $100 billion over the next 30 years. The confrontation between Turkey and Russia over navigation is just a form of jostling for position in the developing 21st-century hydrocarbon rush.
Russia late last year invited international intervention in the dispute in a letter to the United Nations secretary-general. It complained that Turkey had unreasonably kept hundreds of Russian vessels waiting outside the straits for thousands of hours, causing significant economic damage in penalties to their owners and operators, as well as lost contracts and commercial advantages.
In fact, Turkey is bound by the 1936 Montreux treaty, which guarantees free passage to all shipping in peacetime through all straits under its jurisdiction separating the two seas. But the treaty includes provision for revision every 10 years - and the next opportunity for renegotiation without breaching its terms is during the current year.
About 40,000 ships pass through the Bosporus annually. Two tankers recently collided there; the accident claimed 30 lives and caused a fire that burned for a week. Turkey has since introduced new rules, including careful monitoring of dangerous cargoes, a lane system, and the compulsory use of maritime pilots in many cases.
But Turkey also wants to renegotiate the Montreux treaty for economic reasons. The imposition of new restrictions on the volume of tanker traffic carrying Caspian Sea oil from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean will promote an alternative pipeline route through Turkey. That line would break Russia's stranglehold on the economies of the landlocked, newly independent Caspian and Caucasian republics and enable Western Europe to diversify its energy supplies.
Botas, the Turkish state enterprise, is going ahead with the construction of a 1,685-kilometer (1,047-mile) oil pipeline linking the Caspian fields through Georgia to the port of Ceyhan in the eastern Mediterranean. The $1.8 billion project would reduce environmental pressure on the Bosporus and Dardanelles. It would also enable Turkey to reactivate its oil terminal at Ceyhan, which has been idle for more than five years, since the closure of an Iraqi pipeline.
Russia would prefer to control the Caspian's westward energy exports through an existing pipeline, currently being refurbished, to its Black Sea port of Novorossisk via Chechnya. This would assure Russia lucrative transport revenues from the regional energy-export trade, strengthen its position as Western Europe's principal oil and gas supplier, and reassert its economic and political influence in the post-Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia. But such an arrangement would necessitate a substantial expansion of tanker traffic across the crowded and environmentally abused Black Sea.
Led by British Petroleum and Amoco, the 12-company Azerbaijan International Oil consortium involved in the exploitation of the energy riches of the Caspian has decided to use both transport links more or less equally. Other interests are also discussing other pipelines.
Although Russia's Lukoil is part of the consortium, Moscow has expressed its reservations about the entire project. It argues that the Caspian Sea is a lake rather than a sea and that any offshore development there would be illegal absent agreement by all coastal countries, including Russia and Iran.
Russia's efforts to reestablish control over the former republics of the Soviet Union have contributed to enormous logistical problems and prohibitive transport costs, according to a recent Ankara conference organized by the United Nations and the Turkish International Cooperation Agency. Real gross domestic product is estimated to have fallen by one-half or more in several countries of the region since 1990, the last full year of the union.
Their new access to the Mediterranean may perhaps reverse the trend.