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Explained: How Turkey closing its waters to Russia’s navy could impact the war in Ukraine

Turkey has announced its decision to implement the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: March 3, 2022 11:08:36 am
Russian Navy's diesel-electric submarine Rostov-on-Don sails in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey February 13, 2022. (Reuters/File)

When it comes to international affairs in India, Turkey’s complex relations with Russia don’t often get widespread attention. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rapid developments in Europe, that is changing, particularly because of Turkey’s geographical location.

Straits map (DW)

Specifically in focus now are the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, under Turkish control, which are strategically important routes because they link the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey’s borders exist on both sides of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, giving Ankara almost complete control over international access to the Black Sea. Now, Turkey has announced its decision to implement the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, an international convention on naval passage that regulates maritime traffic through the Black Sea that has to pass through these two of its strategic straits. Turkey’s intent in implementing this convention is to limit the movement of Russian warships between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea.

Why is this route important to Russia?

Andrew M. Hascher in his paper ‘The Black Sea and the Turkish Straits: Resurgent Strategic Importance in the 21st Century’ writes that “Modern maritime shipping in the Black Sea and Turkish Straits is responsible for a wide variety of goods being brought to the global market. Perhaps most notable are the energy products of Russia, the South Caucasus region, and Turkey. Oil and natural gas are brought from as far away as the Caspian Sea via pipelines, then transit the Black Sea in both ships and further pipelines.”

Beyond being an important global maritime shipping route, specifically for Russia, Hascher explains that this route is directly linked with the country’s naval power. “Because Russia’s only warm-water naval ports are on the Black Sea, in order to effectively project naval power the Russians must not only exert control of the sea, but also have unrestricted access to the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits,” Hascher explains.

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These straits in control of Turkey are the only maritime passage through which Russia’s ports in the Black Sea can access the Mediterranean Sea and the waters beyond.

What were the developments last week?

When Russia started its invasion of Ukraine last week, Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, in a television broadcast appealed to the Turkish government to close its key straits to Russian warships, invoking the provisions of the 1936 Montreux Convention. Turkey said it could only do so if Ankara officially recognised the invasion as a war.

Then, on February 27, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that the country would now recognise the invasion as “war”, which provides Ankara with the grounds for implementing the Convention with regard to military vessels.

What is the 1936 Montreux Convention?

This international agreement that went into effect in July 1936, put to rest the question of who would control these two strategic straits. During peacetime, the agreement guarantees freedom of passage for civilian vessels, including trade vessels, but battleships face certain restrictions.

Some researchers believe that the Convention restricts Russia’s control over the region and has been a major driving force in Moscow’s repeated demands that it be given greater control of the straits, dating as far back as the 1930s during Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Turkey’s pro-government daily, the Daily Sabah, quoted the country’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar saying, “We will continue to implement the 19th, 20th and 21st articles of the Montreux Convention like we have until today.” The minister said, “We have favorable relations with Ukraine and Russia…Under these principles, we cannot accept this military operation by Russia, which targets Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity.”

How are Turkey’s diplomatic relations with Russia & Ukraine?

Turkey has complex diplomatic relations with both Russia and Ukraine, in part due to the region’s socio-political history and geography. First, in the case of Turkey and Russia, relations between the Ottoman and the Russian empires were hostile and resulted in several wars. Post the 1920s, during the Turkish War of Independence, Bolshevik Russia offered assistance to Turkey.

Relations deteriorated again during the Second World War, all the way up to the 1950s when Turkey joined NATO. Post Stalin’s death in 1953, relations began thawing, but the improvement only came in 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Over the past three decades, bilateral relations have significantly improved and Turkey is one of Russia’s largest trade partners.

Still, Turkey and Russia find themselves on opposite sides of the debate on several major foreign policy issues, that are again an extension of their complex histories and wider geopolitical interests. One of the major issues includes the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Syrian Civil War, the Libyan Civil War and the Kosovo conflict. The Armenian genocide is another major bone of contention.

Turkey established diplomatic relations with Ukraine in the early 1990s when Ankara became one of the first countries to recognise Ukraine’s sovereignty. Two years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in 2016, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the annexation an “occupation” and told Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko that Turkey would not recognise it. Since then, Turkey has backed Ukraine’s territorial claims.

In 2022, as tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated, during a visit to Ukraine, Erdoğan offered to hold a Ukraine-Russia summit as EU leaders increased outreach to the Kremlin as concerns grew that Moscow could invade Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Erdoğan for the efforts and stated that he was “ready to do everything possible in all platforms and in all formats” to ensure peace. Turkey’s rhetoric shifted after Russia’s aggression increased and the government called the invasion of Ukraine “unacceptable”. “On the fourth day of the Ukraine war, we repeat President Erdoğan’s call for an immediate halt of Russian attacks and the start of cease-fire negotiations,” Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın, a Daily Sabah report quoted him saying. “We will continue our efforts to help the people of Ukraine and end bloodshed in this unjust and unlawful war,” he added.

This past week, Turkey also sent humanitarian and military aid for Ukraine, with Zelenskyy thanking Erdoğan for Turkey’s support. Zelenskyy added that a “ban on the passage of (Russian) warships to the Black Sea” was very important for Ukraine. In the wider interest of the region and its own interests, Turkey has heeded Ukraine’s call.

In many ways, Turkey has found itself caught between Russia and Ukraine, where it not only has friendly ties with both, but also important Black Sea maritime boundaries. “We have political, military and economic relations with Russia. Same with Ukraine. We cannot give this up if you ask me because our country has high interests in this regard,” Erdoğan had said last week, the Daily Sabah had reported.

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