Russia's top military officer has said that the country's Black Sea fleet is now stronger than Turkey's navy, and emphasized that Russia is now capable of easily striking the Bosphorus straits, statements that highlight the tenuous nature of the rapprochement between the two states.
"Several years ago the capability of the fleet was sharply contrasted, in particular, with the Turkish navy, when it was said that Turkey is virtually the master of the Black Sea. Now everything is different," said General Valeriy Gerasimov, chief of general staff of the Russian armed forces, at the conclusion of military exercises conducted in southern Russia earlier this month.
Gerasimov highlighted several of the fleet's new acquisitions, including submarines capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles, new aircraft, and the Bastion coastal defense missiles that Russia deployed to Crimea shortly after annexing the territory.
"For [destroying a potential enemy] the Black Sea Fleet today has everything: reconnaissance assets, which locate targets at a distance of 500 kilometers, strike assets. One Bastion complex has a range of 350 kilometers, including to the Bosphorus," he said.
Gerasimov's comments were all the more impolitic given that they were made just two days before he visited Ankara to help patch up the military component of the bilateral relations that were strained after the November 2015 shooting down of a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border. That process was launched in August with a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Gerasimov's visit to Ankara was the first high-level military meeting between the two sides since then and in fact the first visit by a Russian chief of general staff to Turkey in 11 years.
During his visit, the two sides agreed to set up a "hot line" to try to prevent future conflicts, and to improve coordination in Syria, where the two countries back opposing sides in that country's civil war.
But the simmering tension in the Black Sea is likely to be just as difficult to overcome, given the strategic importance that both Turkey and Russia give to the region.
NATO, of which Turkey is a member and which Russia sees as a mortal threat, has stepped up its activities in the Black Sea since the annexation of Crimea, and Russia has responded with its own rearmament and expanded range of exercises and patrols.
Gerasimov's boasts are in fact a sort of echo of Erdogan's statement in May, when he complained that the Black Sea was in danger of becoming a "Russian lake" and asked NATO for an increased presence there. That was before the rapprochement, however, and he hasn't opined on the strategic situation since then.
There was no official comment on Gerasimov's comments/threats, but the Turkish press noted that they would serve only to push Turkey closer to NATO at a time when Moscow's strategy appears to be to drive a wedge between Ankara and its European partners.
"Russia, in spite of its economic difficulties, is increasing its military strength and is trying to secure its military dominance in the Black Sea, which is at the center of its Eurasian strategy," wrote Taha Akyol in the newspaper Hurriyet. "Therefore Turkey's NATO membership has not only decreased in importance, but increased."
Another Turkish commentator, writing at odatv.com, suggested that Gerasimov's comments reflected "Stalinist" claims to some former Russian imperial territories in eastern Turkey, "which only pushed Turkey into the embrace of the 'Atlantic structures.'"
And Fehim Taşketin, writing in Al-Monitor, cited "a senior Turkish source who did not want to be identified" as saying that: "Turkey’s support of a larger NATO presence in the Black Sea has softened since the normalization of Turkish-Russian relations. But this doesn’t mean that Turkey has eased its ambitions of boosting the Turkish naval presence in the Black Sea. The source said Turkey has not abandoned the US goal of containing the Russian power in the Black Sea."
As for Gerasimov's claim that the Russian Black Sea fleet is stronger than Turkey's, Turkish naval blogger Can Devrim Yaylali says it's hard to compare. He told The Bug Pit in an email interview that Russian fleet has indeed recovered from the dire conditions it suffered through in the early post-Soviet period. "But I don't think that they have managed to tip the scale completely to their side," he said. "The Turkish Navy has a clear superiority in operational submarines. And while Turkish submarines lack the long range missiles of the Russian subs, Turkish submarines can prevent the Russian fleet from reaching the Turkish Straits... Both sides have the means to hurt each other very much, but currently neither side has the capability to clearly KO the other party."