22.02.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

The Black Sea Straits: Turkey balances between the US and Russia

The Black Sea Straits: Turkey balances between the US and Russia

The territory of modern Turkey has economic-geographical and military-strategic advantages due to its control over the Black Sea Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. Control of the Black Sea Straits has always been strategically important to the great powers in world geopolitics and trade.

Great Britain and Russia often clashed over the right to control the Straits. In August 1914, German ships, including the cruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau, attacked Russian ports after passing through the Black Sea Straits. This led to the Ottoman Empire joining World War I on the side of Germany against Russia. One of the tasks of the Nazi German Ambassador to Ankara, Franz von Papen, in the late 1930s was to obtain Turkish consent for the passage of German ships through the Straits to the Black Sea to participate in the war against the USSR. Stalin later described Turkey’s policy during World War II as “hostile neutrality.”

In the 19th century, Russia’s successful wars against the Ottoman Empire enabled Russian control over the Black Sea Straits. However, Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, for some reason, decided to let in Britain and France in resolving the fate of the regime of shipping in the Black Sea Straits, while this issue could have become a subject of relations between solely Russia and Ottoman Turkey.

As a result, on July 3, 1841, the Straits Convention was signed in London, with the consent of the Russian Tsar, between Turkey, on the one hand, and Russia, Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and France, on the other. It stipulated that as long as Turkey was not at war, the Straits would be closed to military ships of any nation. During the war, Turkey was granted the right to let ships through the Straits belonging to states with which it wished to reach an agreement. The London Straits Convention in fact buried the decisions of the Russian-Turkish Treaty of Hünkâr İskelesi of 1833, according to the secret articles of which Turkey undertook not to allow warships of any European countries to enter the Black Sea. Russia’s political and military positions have been significantly strengthened by the latter.

Following the results of the First World War, the Versailles Conference of the victorious countries again returned to the topic of the Black Sea straits, which continued with long negotiations, sharp discussions and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne on July 24, 1923, based on a project of Great Britain. The representatives of the Soviet delegation were actually blocked, and the head of the Russian delegation, Vatslav Vorovsky, was not even officially informed about the resumption of the conference and was not allowed to take part in the negotiations (on May 10, 1923, Vorovsky was assassinated in Lausanne by Russian White émigré named Maurice Conradi).

The Lausanne Treaty was signed between Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and Turkey. The USSR did not ratify the convention because its terms violated legal rights and did not guarantee the security of Black Sea countries. In particular, this convention provided for the demilitarization of the Straits Zone, with the Straits themselves coming under the control of a special international commission. In other words, the right to station military units near the straits was taken away from Turkey, through whose territory the straits passed. Simultaneously, all commercial and military vessels from any country in the world were granted free passage through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, with only minor restrictions. The latter created problems for the Black Sea countries, especially for the main Black Sea powers – Turkey and Russia.

The events of 1936 in Spain, the growth of Fascist militarism in Italy and Germany reopened the issue of the Black Sea Straits. Britain was concerned about losing control over Turkey, its naval bases, and its broad interests in the Mediterranean and the Arab East, including the restoration of the German-Turkish alliance. Therefore, London considered it appropriate to make concessions to Ankara on the issue of changing the regime of the Black Sea Straits and replacing the International Special Commission with Turkish control, including the abolition of Turkey’s demilitarization in the Straits Zone.

Consequently, following months of discussions, a new convention on the Black Sea Straits regime was signed on July 20, 1936, in the Swiss city of Montreux. This convention is seen as a compromise in international practice. In times of peace and war, merchant ships of all nations were granted the right of free passage through the Straits. Warships of non-Black Sea states are restricted in transit through the Bosporus and Dardanelles by class, total tonnage, total number and period of stay in the Black Sea not exceeding three weeks. In the case of Turkey’s taking part in a war, and if Turkey considers itself directly threatened by war, it is given the right to authorize or prohibit the passage of military ships through the Straits. Accordingly, the demilitarization regime was abolished, and Turkey was granted the right to station its military garrisons in the Straits Zone. The USSR’s demands for limitations on the military presence of non-littoral states in the Black Sea were mostly taken into account. London and Paris obtained the right to adjust the ratio of naval forces between Turkey and the USSR in the Black Sea.

Overall, the Montreux Convention can be viewed as a compromise that helped stabilize the situation in the Straits Zone. The Convention has been extended twice for 20 years. It remains in force as of now. The issue of the Black Sea Straits is currently being discussed in international diplomacy. This is especially true in times of crisis, when relations between major Black Sea countries, such as Russia and Turkey, become contentious.

With the start of the Russian Special Military Operations in Ukraine, hostilities have been resumed in the Black Sea basin waters. The Collective West, led by the United States, is attempting to alter the international legal norms that regulate the passage of warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles.

According to US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander, Washington plans to collaborate with Ankara regarding shipping in the Black Sea. The Pentagon spokesperson emphasized the need to create a favorable environment in the region, ensuring that the Black Sea is fully accessible for commercial shipping.

Meanwhile, the United States is attempting to use merchant shipping as a cover to alter the regulations for the passage of non-Black Sea NATO warships through the Dardanelles and Bosporus to the Black Sea. For this purpose, the Black Sea Grain Initiative became a convenient opportunity.

The United States and the United Kingdom assert that Russia’s decision to withdraw from the agreement violates international humanitarian law. They propose the formation of an operational group under the convoy of NATO air and naval forces to transport Ukrainian grain through the Straits to foreign markets.

Retired US Navy Admiral James Stavridis announced in July 2023 that a convoy would be created under the control of the United States or NATO. A year earlier, The Wall Street Journal reported that Joe Biden Administration was considering new rules for the passage and navigation of warships in the Black Sea. The North Atlantic Alliance plans to deploy more military aircraft and ships to the Black Sea, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

In November 2023, US Congressmen Mike Rogers and Mike Turner urged President Joe Biden to deploy US military forces in the Black Sea to provide military support to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Commander Brian Harrington of the US Navy stated that conducting military exercises outside the scope of the Montreux Convention would undermine Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea. Perhaps these appeals and statements are intended more for the Turkish president.

The British and Norwegians have initiated a program to enhance Ukraine’s capabilities in the Black Sea. However, Turkey refused to allow two Sandown-class minehunters which were conditionally transferred by Great Britain to the Ukrainian Navy in June 2021, to pass through the Bosporus. According to Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, Turkey considers the ships of Russia and Ukraine as belonging to belligerent powers and therefore, they are not permitted to pass through the Black Sea Straits. London officials attempted to pressure Ankara, but were unsuccessful.

As for the warships of the US and other extra-regional countries that used to regularly enter the Black Sea using the right of peaceful passage, Turkey has announced within NATO that it will not allow naval exercises or visits for other purposes as long as the conflict continues. Ankara argues that violating the provisions of the Montreux Convention in the current situation will inevitably trigger retaliatory actions by the Russian Navy, leading to a new military escalation. Despite the dissatisfaction of NATO allies with Turkey’s position, Ankara does not intend to change it, showing the firmness and stubbornness typical of Turks.

The Montreux Convention does not allow the unimpeded passage of warships of non-littoral states in the Black Sea. However, after the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, NATO gained an advantage in the Black Sea. In other words, prior to 1991, all Black Sea countries except for NATO’s Turkey were members of the Warsaw Pact and allies. Right now, the situation in the Black Sea is reversed. Namely, Russia on the one hand and NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and the North Atlantic Alliance candidates Georgia and Ukraine on the other.

The US is not a signatory to the Montreux Convention at all and can therefore afford to violate its terms. Every five years since the signing of this convention in 1936, changes to its provisions may be proposed, provided that the initiative is supported by a two-thirds vote of the Montreux signatories. However, currently, all signatory countries except Russia are NATO members, and Japan and Australia are strategic partners or allies of the United States.

In this situation, Turkey’s opinion remains key as it still holds the role of “host of the Straits” under the Montreux Convention and maintains an independent policy. A change in the provisions of the convention would be a change in Turkey’s own status quo in the region. This is obviously not what Ankara wants. Crimea is now under Russian control, which could pose a threat to the same straits.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the Turkish authorities will not change the rules of entrance in the Black Sea for NATO warships under Pentagon’s pressure. However, Russia cannot rely on Turkey’s guarantees forever, as Ankara has shown a willingness to make sudden political reversals.

The US and Turkey are discussing the issue of closing the Bosporus to Russian warships, according to Iranian journalist Hayal Muadzin. In particular, there is information circulating that the US has offered to cede some areas in northern Syria, apparently Kurdish-populated provinces, to Turkey as a gift to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in exchange for active cooperation against Russia in the Black Sea.

In January, Turkey ratified Sweden’s NATO status in exchange for the delivery of 40 modernized F-16 fighter jets from the US. Washington is prepared to address the matter of F-16 Block 70 fighter jets for Turkey. Additionally, Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland stated in Ankara that the US is willing to involve Turkey in the production program of fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets and provide them with a Patriot air defense system. This offer is contingent upon Turkey’s refusal to use the Russian S-400 Triumf SAM system. The Americans may be willing to provide soft loans to support the struggling Turkish economy, but only if Turkey refrains from actively cooperating with Russia in trade and economic matters and strictly adheres to the sanctions regime.

It is evident that Turkey faces numerous temptations. However, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is aware that excessive improvisation towards Russia could jeopardize Turkey’s Great Turan project and its access to Azerbaijan and Turkic countries in Central Asia through the Zangezur corridor. For the time being, therefore, Ankara is trying to keep the “Russian side” of the fence. Turkey refuses to revise the provisions of the Montreux Convention in exchange for the “Swedish case.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan confirmed that Ankara will continue to use the Montreux convention and stated that it is not up for debate. With the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, Turkey exercised its powers under the Montreux Convention and prohibited the passage of warships through the Black Sea Straits. The Turkish Defense Ministry aims to prevent further escalation of military tensions in the Black Sea basin, especially in the Straits area. The Straits pose not only an economic issue for Turkey, but also a security concern. Ankara has the right to charge for the passage of ships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, which covers expenses for lighthouses, evacuation, and medical care.

In the rapidly evolving situation of the Ukrainian conflict, it is crucial for the Turks to maintain their key positions. There is a domestic political consensus on this issue: the provisions of the Straits Convention must remain unchanged. Turkey’s accession to Western sanctions against Russia is inadmissible; otherwise, Turkey will lose the opportunity to play a mediating role.


Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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