Giant chessboard: Istanbul ship-spotters monitor moves for war

A light snow falls on Istanbul as Yoruk Isik boards a ferry and climbs upstairs, passing up the cosy enclosed lower deck where tourists and commuters sip tea for the open-air top of the small boat.

As the ferry embarks on its trip up the Bosphorus Strait, Isik pulls out a camera and begins snapping photos of a giant southbound cargo ship he recognises, one usually contracted to carry wheat purchased in Eastern Europe as humanitarian aid for Yemen.

Hundreds of ships ply the strait each day, from giant oil tankers and container ships that dwarf the Ottoman mansions and mosques on the shore to naval destroyers and submarines moved around the world like pieces on a giant chessboard.

The 50-year old Istanbul-born geopolitical analyst and ship-spotter always carries a camera and is constantly on the lookout for warships and civilian vessels he says are involved in “curious activities”.

“When you are living your life in Istanbul, there is a sublayer of these events happening literally right next to you and most of these Istanbul residents, in their busy day, are not so aware of it,” Isik said.

Vessels registered in places with unstable governments, or where authorities are known to not inspect cargo well, pique the interest of ship-spotters, as do those who seem to drop off the radar in heavily trafficked areas in the Mediterranean Sea. By keeping track of their movements, Isik and other ship-spotters are often able to predict new conflicts before global superpowers publicly announce them.

His target on this day is a Russian Tapir-class naval landing ship, capable of carrying hundreds of troops and armoured vehicles, one of several that regularly make the trip from Russian Black Sea ports south to a Russian base in Tartus, Syria. Russia’s naval bases in the Black Sea are crucial warm-water ports for its projection of power, not only in Syria but far afield in conflicts in Libya and Mali.

As Russia seems to be gearing up for a possible war in Ukraine, one obvious question is whether that means Moscow is paying less attention to its other global engagements, a shift Isik says would be reflected in fewer ships going south through the Bosphorous. That same logic can be used to determine how Ukraine and its NATO allies are preparing for war, and how many ships are being sent north into the Black Sea.

“I constantly follow any military ships going to Ukraine, to see who is sending what message,” Isik said. “So, if a French ship is coming after US ships, it shows that in NATO there is some harmony, because the American ship leaves the Black Sea and, that same night, a French ship enters.”

Spying on superpowers

The internet has made it much easier to find and track movements through waterways like the Bosphorous. Short-range terrestrial radars dot the shores of most of the world’s coastlines, picking up identification signals from passing ships as part of an international effort to avoid sea collisions.

On his smartphone, Isik can pull up several applications that gather that data, showing the names and locations of many vessels around him. But military ships don’t always turn their transmitters on, so Isik has to get creative: checking public webcams installed along coasts, or Instagram or other visual social media posts that often coincidentally include warships crossing in the background.

In 2021, for instance, ship-spotters noted 50 Russian warships going south to the Mediterranean and 43 north to the Black Sea. Thirteen US warships went to the Black Sea, while 12 left it for the Mediterranean.

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