According to the Wikipedia article on the proposed Istanbul Canal, it is said that the Bosporus has nearly 3 times the amount of ship traffic as the Suez Canal. Presumably this ship traffic comes primarily from Russia and Ukraine. Why does Russia choose to be so dependent on a water passage that it does not control? Why hasn't Russia (and historically, the USSR) tried to orient their economy to use the Baltic Sea instead? Are there economic and political obstacles to minimizing this dependence?

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    I don't think there are political reasons. The gulf of Finland (at least partially) freezes, which makes st Petersburg a seasonal port. You still have to go through straits that aren't under the control of Russia (in Denmark) And the journey from St P.burg to India is a lot further than from the Black sea. But the question begs... is Russia really so dependent on the black sea? Most trade is by rail, road or pipeline, not by boat.
    – James K
    May 7, 2021 at 21:39
  • For one country (Russia) with a relatively small economy to outweigh Suez Canal by a factor of 3, seems to imply that a massive fraction of its economic output passes through the Bosporus. May 7, 2021 at 21:47
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    Re traffic coming primarily from Russia and Ukraine, note that Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, and Turkey also border the Black Sea. It's also possible for ships to travel between the Black & Caspian Seas, so add Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. So it would be interesting to see what fraction of Bosphorus traffic is actually Russian.
    – jamesqf
    May 8, 2021 at 4:47
  • You may want to take a look at George Friedman's take on it. May 8, 2021 at 12:19
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    Apparently, for containers, a quarter of the traffic is accounted for by Romania (and Costanta really). Also note that the comparison with the Suze canal seems to be based on the number of ships and might not be a like-for-like comparison: Are ship sizes comparable? Does the total include the numerous ferries?
    – Relaxed
    May 8, 2021 at 13:41

2 Answers 2


Because the Baltic Sea ices over every winter. In theory, you could continue year-round operations with icebreakers and cargo ships with a sufficient ice class but that's expensive and there are only so many ice rated cargo ships out there. Alternatively, you could use the St. Petersburg port heavily during the summer months and the Black Sea heavily during the winter but then you'd need all of the infrastructure at both ports which, again, gets expensive. Plus, in order to get to the ocean, Russian traffic would still need to go through a relatively narrow straight owned by foreign powers (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark in this case).

There is common wisdom from Western academics and politicians that the drive to own warm water ports has been a key driver of much of modern Russian history precisely because sea traffic into and out of the country is subject to such external bottlenecks. Not everyone agrees with this thesis but it is pretty common thinking in political science circles (and there are plenty of memes available if you do a search).

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    The ice situation in the Baltic Sea is not that bad. Year-round operations in the Gulf of Finland were already routine in the early 20th century. Three seaports in the St. Petersburg area (St. Petersburg, Primorsk, Ust-Luga) should be among the 20 busiest ports in Europe by cargo tonnage. May 8, 2021 at 4:35
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    @JouniSirén, those operations required hefty icebreaker support, and a bad winter might interrupt them. Also the strategic situation -- Germany, Denmark and Sweden at the exit of the Baltic, vs. Turkey at the exit of the Black Sea. Germany was more powerful.
    – o.m.
    May 8, 2021 at 4:54
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    @o.m. Icebreaker support has been routine since the early 20th century. To put things in context, cheap passenger ferries have been operating between Helsinki, Stockholm, and Tallinn for decades, and I don't remember that service ever been interrupted due to ice conditions. Ports in many warm seas such as the Gulf of Mexico are probably far more vulnerable to extreme conditions. May 8, 2021 at 5:07
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    @JouniSirén, the prevention paradox. Little Finland operates a remarkable number of icebreakers for the size of the nation. They have so much of an ice problem that there are robust measures in place to handle it.
    – o.m.
    May 8, 2021 at 5:13
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    It is worth adding the historical perspective to support this view: in pre-Peter the Great times the Russia's only port was Arkhanglesk, giving access via the White sea. The difficulty of this route is what drove the Peter's wars against Sweden (for access to the Baltic) and Turkey (for access to the Balck sea).
    – Roger V.
    May 10, 2021 at 7:50

According to Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, Turkey is obliged to provide free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime.

Of course, there is a small possibility that Turkey won't honor the agreement for some reason, but given that such access is by no means existential for Russia, the problem doesn't seem to be serious enough to try to do something to solve it.

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