[ANALYSIS] How the Russia-Ukraine crisis will impact the Montreux Convention

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Fatih Yurtsever*

The Russia-Ukraine crisis, which began with the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, has evolved into a Russia-NATO-US crisis. As NATO’s leading country, the US brought the crisis to a head due to Russia escalating military efforts to invade Ukraine. Talks between the US and Russia, which were expected to ease the tension, have failed to produce concrete results because it is impossible to meet Putin’s demands regarding NATO and US military facilities on NATO’s eastern flank. Conclusion: NATO countries don’t have a consensus on possible measures against Russia. The crisis is spreading to Eastern Europe and, more broadly, to the Black Sea. Turkey will be one of the most-affected countries due to its growing military ties with Ukraine as well as regulating passage through the Turkish Straits in accordance with the Montreux Convention.

Turkey had previously remained neutral in Black Sea conflicts, preferring to play the role of mediator; this time, however, it is actively involved in the Ukrainian-Russian issue. Turkey and Ukraine have established close cooperation in the defense industry in recent years. Turkey has been building corvettes for the Ukrainian Navy and selling armed UAVs, and Ukraine is developing engines for Turkey’s missiles and UAVs in line with a deal signed by the two countries in 2020. Russia is monitoring Turkish-Ukrainian military cooperation with concern. In particular, deploying TB-2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) in eastern Ukraine may bring Turkish-Russian relations to a crisis. However, a more critical issue remains unaddressed: the implementation of the Montreux Convention during times of crisis. Turkey’s jurisdiction over the Turkish Straits under the convention may put it in a delicate situation if the Russia-Ukraine turmoil escalates.

The Montreux Convention is an international agreement that regulates the passage of warships through the straits from countries with no coastline on the Black Sea. It also oversees the duration and total tonnage of warships that are allowed to deploy in the Black Sea. As a result of Turkey’s intensive diplomatic efforts, the convention was signed in 1936 by Turkey, Bulgaria, France, the UK, Australia, Greece, Japan, Romania, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The security concerns of countries with coastlines on the Black Sea were addressed with regulations based on the duration of deployment in the Black Sea, which is limited to 21 days, and the tonnage of foreign warships.

Turkey has multiple times eased the execution of the Montreux Convention on submarine passage in favor of Russia. In the event of an escalation of the current crisis, NATO and the US may ask Turkey to refrain from strictly implementing the Montreux regime as it had previously done to the benefit of Russia.

The fundamental principles of the Montreux Convention for military vessels during peacetime are as follows:

  • Aircraft carriers, whether belonging to coastal states or not, can in no way pass through the straits.
  • Only submarines belonging to coastal states can pass through the straits to rejoin their base in the Black Sea for their maiden deployment after their construction, purchase or repair in dockyards outside the Black Sea.
  • The maximum aggregate tonnage of all foreign naval forces that may be in the course of transit through the straits is limited to 15,000 tons. The naval forces should not comprise more than nine warships.
  • The maximum aggregate tonnage that noncoastal states are allowed to have in the Black Sea is 45,000 tons. In this regard, the maximum aggregate tonnage of vessels of war that one noncoastal state can have in the Black Sea is 30,000 tons.
  • Naval surface ships belonging to noncoastal states cannot stay more than 21 days in the Black Sea.
  • Under Article 20, the passage of warships in time of war depends entirely on the discretion of the Turkish government. If Turkey considers that it is in imminent danger of war, it has the right to apply the provisions of Article 20 of the present convention.

Turkey denied passage to two hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, with a total tonnage of 140,000 tons, transporting humanitarian aid during the 2008 Georgian crisis because the tonnage restrictions of the convention had been violated. This averted the risk of a crisis with Russia. On the other hand, Turkey has repeatedly used its power to monitor the passage of warships and interpret the provisions of the convention in favor of Russia. The first time this happened was in 1976, during the passage of the Soviet aircraft carrier Kiev. The Montreux Convention prohibits aircraft carriers from transiting the straits. The USSR stated in its advance notice that the Kiev was an “anti-submarine cruiser.” Due to the NATO classification of the ship as an aircraft carrier, the NATO General Assembly requested that the ship be denied passage. However, the Turkish government allowed the ship’s passage by making a policy decision based on the flag state declaration and exercising its implied discretion in the matter.

The second event was the passage of the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in 1981. As the USSR had previously done with the Kiev, the Kuznetsov was described in the pre-notification as a “heavy battle cruiser with aircraft.” Using similar logic, Turkey allowed this ship to pass through the straits. However, another significant aspect of both crossings is that, despite the fact that the convention conveyed preliminary notices for the passages to the representatives of the signature states in Ankara, none of them raised any objections to the crossings.

During the Cold War, Soviet Black Sea Fleet submarines did not use the straits for passage. In 2011, RFS B-871 Alrosa passed through the straits for the first time since 1991. The submarine in question transited the straits and was repaired in Saint Petersburg. In 2017 Russia completed the construction of six diesel-electric submarines for the Black Sea Fleet in the same city. Four of these submarines were stationed in the Black Sea, while two were in Tartus, Syria, in the eastern Mediterranean. As of 2017 the Velikiy Novgorod and Kolpino submarines were no longer present in the eastern Mediterranean. Still, the Black Sea-based submarines Krasnodar and Stary Oskol transited the straits to the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey allowed the passage of these submarines through the straits, considering their passage to be a request for repairs; however, the Russian naval base in Tartus doesn’t have the capability to repair or maintain the submarines mentioned above. Their subs are being repaired in Saint Petersburg after crossing from the Black Sea to the eastern Mediterranean, where they have long been in service. The provision of the Montreux Convention on the straits was again interpreted in Russia’s favor.

The Ukraine-Russia crisis has been worsening by the day. On Jan. 26, 2022, the Russian Black Sea Fleet commenced a large-scale naval exercise. Turkey will ease the Montreux provision so that the US and NATO can deter Russia in the Black Sea. However, if Turkey does this, it will create a major crisis with Russia. Turkey is in a different situation now than during the 2008 Georgia conflict, when Turkey opened the door and allowed Russian submarines to pass through. Now the US and NATO could possibly request to go through that same door. This time, Turkey, which has very few options, will have to choose between terrible and worse. Turkey needs to stop arms sales to Ukraine and cooperate with NATO in Ukraine instead of acting alone. Otherwise, Turkey may be forced to deal with Russia on its own.

Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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