This incident reportedly occurred the morning of 4 December.
The Ropucha-class tank landing ship Tsesar Kunikov (BDK-158) was heading from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, conducting a southbound transit of the Turkish Straits. (As documented at the excellent Bosphorus Naval News blog, BDK-158 has been back and forth through the Turkish Straits several times over the last few months. The ship was most recently off Syria in November, and returned to the Black Sea on 25 November before Friday’s southbound transit.)
Turkish media reported that a Russian sailor was photographed on the deck with a shoulder-fired missile launcher in the firing position during the transit.
— The Interpreter (@Interpreter_Mag) December 7, 2015
The image shows a man with what appears to be a 9K38 Igla (SA-18 “Grouse”) anti-air missile launcher – a man-portable air defense system, or MANPAD – on an upper deck of the Tsesar Kunikov. Additional views of the event were spread far and wide via Twitter.
— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) December 4, 2015
The implied threat would be to surveillance aircraft operated by Turkey over the Bosporus.
Experienced Navy sailors will recognize that this kind of display is prohibited for peacetime straits passage under any maritime law regime – including the Montreux Convention, which specifically governs passage in the Turkish Straits. The Turkish Straits are not a set of international straits; they fall within the borders of Turkey, and are managed by Turkey under the terms of the Montreux Convention. One of the terms is that warships transiting the straits do not engage in displays of threatening force – i.e., displays like the one seen on Friday with the SA-18 MANPAD.
Russia, of course, appears to be responding to Turkey’s shootdown of a Russian Su-24 Fencer at the border of Syria and Turkey on 24 November. Although both incidents may seem to unengaged Westerners like unnecessary provocations, the extent of what’s actually happening in Syria – the jockeying for tactical position on the ground, with Russia and Turkey increasingly at odds – gives the exchange of eye-pokes serious weight.
Russia and Turkey have also retaliated in the last week by detaining each other’s merchant ships for “inspections” in commercial ports in the Black Sea.
This isn’t penny-ante stuff going on. The shootdown of the Su-24 in November was a political power move by Turkey, and the provocative transit posture of the Russian warship on Friday was a political power move by Russia. Putin wants to demonstrate that he can defy the convention in the Turkish Straits whenever he wants to, and force Erdogan to tacitly acknowledge that.
Erdogan’s choices are to take it – albeit with a protest – or to try to prohibit (or somehow control) Russian warship transits. The latter is unthinkable, however – or, under stable, peacetime conditions, it should be. That Russia might make a practice of defying the Montreux Convention is, equally, unendurable.
For the time being, the advantage is probably to “unthinkable” in this situation. But how long this time will “be” isn’t predictable anymore. There is real danger here.