Although Russia faces increasingly harsh sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, it has managed to maintain stable trade with international markets, thanks to the Bosphorus waterway running through Istanbul. RFI spoke with a man whose hobby is helping to thwart the evasion of Russian sanctions.
Looking closely with his camera and telescopic lens, Yoruk Isik can see a Russian cargo ship announcing its passage through the Bosphorus waterway, en route from a Black Sea port to international markets.
“I’m interested in Russian foreign policy, and looking at the ships on the Bosphorus gives real clues about Russian foreign policy and what they’re doing, who they’re engaging with,” Isik told RFI.
“If there’s a ship that really, really interests me, I can go down to the water’s edge, take a better photo and explain the significance,” he adds.
Isik is an international analyst whose hobby for more than a decade has been monitoring ships passing through Istanbul’s Bosphorus waterway, known to locals as the “Gorge.”
The waterway divides the city of 20 million between Asia and Europe and is the only outlet to the Black Sea.
“Here you can be in a cafe or a teahouse or walking down the street, and you can literally see the ships going by, you know, hundreds of meters away. You can do without any special equipment. You just need to read the ship (name) and follow the ship. So in that sense it’s a very special place,” says Isik.
It also emphasizes that the waterway is essential to Russian trade and major military exports.
“All its military and naval connections with the Mediterranean pass through the Bosphorus, and most of the ships passing through the Bosphorus are linked to Russia. This is Russia’s vital trade and military route,” he said. -he declares.
Russia is also the most sanctioned country in the world.
“Most people engaged in trade with Russia try to hide their activities because they fear that some sanctions will come back and harm them,” says Isik.
Observe Russian ships
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Isik has focused on Russian ships, working with an international network of volunteers and non-governmental organizations that share data online on their movements.
Isik’s website and Twitter have become a go-to resource for media.
While ships often disable their Automatic Identification System (AIS) that allows them to be tracked by international authorities, surveillance efforts by people like Isik are vital, say organizations working to expose the Russian ships that violate sanctions.
“I think this monitoring of ships is very valuable,” says George Voloshin, a global financial crime expert at ACAMS, a US-based watchdog.
“A common technique is to manipulate your AIS signal by simply lowering your transponder or attempting to manipulate it.”
“It gives the impression that the ship is in a different place, in a different place. All these leads are potentially valuable,” he adds.
Surveillance by groups like Isik helped expose Russian exports of stolen Ukrainian grain and coal from the Black Sea ports it occupied in Ukraine.
Moscow has denied the accusations.
The waters off Istanbul fall under limited Turkish jurisdiction and are an international hub for hundreds of empty cargo ships and tankers that frequently change ownership.
Experts say this makes monitoring difficult and creates favorable conditions for those seeking to circumvent a long list of sanctions.
“There are a lot of ships here. There is a good shipping market,” says Isik.
“At the same time, Turkey offers high-quality shipyards immediately east of Istanbul, in fact violating sanctions more than the shipyard’s anchorage area. This is because Turkey does not part of the EU and US sanctions, which are not necessarily universal.” Isik explains.
“We see many sanctioned vessels coming to the shipyards east of Istanbul for services, and they are not violating any national laws.”
Ankara refuses to apply many international sanctions against Russia, saying it is not linked to them.
Trade between Russia and Turkey has boomed since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is set to grow even further, with the Turkish and Russian presidents pledging to increase trade by $70 billion to $100 billion.
This means more ships for Isik to track.