He has been watching boats on the Bosphorus strait for two decades; but, until recently, it had been years since Serhat Guvenc had glimpsed a Russian warship. Common in the Cold War era and again during the Balkans conflict, they had become a rare sight on the mighty waterway that transects the ancient city of Istanbul and separates Europe from Asia.
Now, barely a day goes by when the academic and amateur ship-spotter fails to catch sight of a Russian missile cruiser, landing ship or submarine. They goad Turkey by sailing through the heart of its biggest city to supply the conflict in Syria. “It’s like rubbing salt on an open wound,” Mr Guvenc says.
Turkey and Russia have supported opposing sides in the Syrian conflict since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. Since November, when Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi-24 jet, the relationship has teetered on the brink of all-out war. But thanks to a 1930s treaty, in peace time foreign states “enjoy the freedom” to send military and commercial ships from the Black Sea down to the Mediterranean.
For Mr Guvenc, 51, and a group of four friends, the parade of military hardware through their city is irresistible. Sipping coffee from a stunning balcony with a panoramic view of the channel, they explain that the photographs they share online are pored over by military strategists and analysts around the world.
“Usually these ships are out of sight. We don’t know what they are doing,” explains Devrim Yaylali, 45, an economist who has been spotting ships for nearly 30 years. “The Bosphorus or the port is the only place you can see them.”
His friend Yoruk Isik, 45, an international affairs consultant, chips in: “Here, you can be in Starbucks with an espresso and a ship is literally 250 metres away.” The sharp bends and strong currents in the channel means that the boats must slow right down to manoeuvre, making them easy to photograph. “There’s no other place on earth where you can capture them so well.”
The city provides a stunning backdrop. The boats glide under three imposing bridges before sweeping past the Ottoman palaces of Dolmabahce and Topkapi and the spires of the Hagia Sophia.
It is not just Russian vessels that come and go. Turkish warships and submarines are a common sight for commuters taking the short ferry hop from one side of the city to the other. Nato ships arrive on port visits and training missions. Vast cargo ships carry multi-coloured containers, and in summer tourist cruisers dock in the city centre. But it’s the Russian ships that have caught international attention as President Vladimir Putin made clear that he was reasserting Moscow’s muscle in Syria and the wider region. The Bosphorus is a vital link between Russia’s Black Sea ports and its naval bases in the coastal towns of Latakia and Tartous.
Already this year, Russian warships have made almost four dozen trips up and down the strait. They include the hulking Moskva, a guided missile cruiser that is the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and provides air cover for Moscow’s deployment in Syria. It sports a red star on each side, and huge silver missiles that glint on deck in the sun.
One of the most frequent visitors of 2016 has been the Yamal 156, a rusting, Soviet-era, Ropucha-class large landing ship that offloads vehicles, cargo and troops on to beaches. It has already made three trips to Syria and back.
The 1936 Montreux Convention gives Turkey control of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, the strait that leads into the Mediterranean; but it also requires Turkey to grant freedom of passage to commercial and naval ships. Like all foreign powers, however, Russia must inform Turkey before sending a military vessel. This has led to surprising co‑operation between the two states, despite the fraying of relations. Weeks after the downing of the Russian jet the Turkish coastguard escorted the Rostov-na-donu, an imposing black submarine armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, as it made its way down through the city. According to the spotters, it was trailed by a Turkish anti-submarine warfare patrol boat for intelligence purposes.
The escalating tensions between the two countries has thrust the group of amateur enthusiasts into the spotlight. Weeks before President Putin officially announced Russia’s military intervention in Syria, they noticed dozens of armoured vehicles and military trucks barely hidden under tarpaulins on deck. All are convinced that the insouciance was deliberate. “This is like a catwalk,” says Alper Boler, 41, a product designer by day. “We see exactly what they want to show us.”
Mr Isik broke the story of the Russian sailor standing on deck with a missile launcher on his shoulder as his ship passed through a city of 14 million people. After posting it online, he was bombarded by phone calls from news channels. Turkey’s foreign ministry summoned the Russian ambassador, and the Deputy Prime Minister decried the episode as a “childish show”.
The group feels uneasy about being drawn into this kind of political spat. They bristled at seeing their photographs used as ammunition by various factions in Turkey and Russia, each with its own agenda.
The ships may be impressive to look at and fun to catalogue, but the group has been only too aware that these vessels are fuelling a terrible conflict that has killed an estimated 470,000 people so far. “You get excited when [you] spot a ship,” says Mr Isik. “But then you think: you are watching a very deadly machine going past.”
Though there is intense international interest in the Russian vessels that pass, the group logs everything from small speedboats that whizz up and down to the vast cargo ships that hulk down the centre of the channel. “The war is going on and [the straits have] come to prominence,” says Kerim Bozkurt, 36, an architect member of the group. When it ends, we will keep watching.”
But even with the shaky ceasefire that began in Syria last weekend, Russian ships have continued passing through the city.
Among the vessels spotted by the group in recent days were two boats packed with military vehicles. Kremlin-watchers say that, whether Turkey likes it or not, Russia is back in the Middle East. And its route runs right through Istanbul.
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