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[ANALYSIS] Turkey’s Black Sea actions strategically benefit Russia

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Ahmet Yılmaz*

Three important Turkish moves in the Black Sea have strategic consequences in Russia’s favor: Turkey’s biased interpretation of the Montreux Convention; its suggestion regarding drifting sea mines; and its design of the Black Sea Grain Initiative instead of a proposed safe corridor under Western leadership. When Turkey’s actions are analyzed, it would not be wrong to infer that Turkey is trying to protect Russia strategically by effectively keeping Western navies out of the Black Sea. This argument will be evaluated considering the aforementioned actions of Turkey in the Black Sea.

How does Turkey’s biased implementation of the Montreux Convention benefit Russia?

The Montreux Convention, which governs the Bosporus and the Dardanelles (Turkish Straits, or the Straits), and the naval force balance in the Black Sea, is of vital importance for Russia. The latest Russian maritime doctrine, which was published in July 2022, acknowledges the Black Sea and the Straits as important areas having a significant impact on economic development, the material well-being of the population and the national security of the Russian Federation as well as on the maintenance of the strategic and regional security of the state because the Straits constitute the only waterway connecting the Black Sea to the world’s oceans. Turkey was given significant rights and duties for the implementation of this convention that have strategic importance for Russia. Even Russia in its maritime doctrine sees attempts to revise the convention as the main risk to its maritime activities. The Montreux Convention limits the naval force of non-littoral states in the Black Sea; therefore it is vital for Russia’s security, especially during the Ukraine war.

Shortly after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said after a cabinet meeting, “We are implementing the Montreux provisions. We have warned all states, littoral and non-littoral, not to send their warships through the Straits. We implemented what Montreux says, and we will do so from now on. The statement was interpreted as meaning that Turkey would not only ban Russian and Ukrainian warships but also the warships of other nations, i.e., the US, the UK and other NATO member countries. However, according to the Montreux Convention, it has the right and duty to ban only the warships of countries at war, Russia and Ukraine in this case.

Article 19 of the convention reads:

“In time of war, Turkey not being belligerent, warships shall enjoy complete freedom of transit and navigation through the Straits under the same conditions as those laid down in Articles 10 to 18.

“Vessels of war belonging to belligerent Powers shall not, however, pass through the Straits …”

It clearly states that only belligerent powers (Russia and Ukraine) cannot pass through the Straits, but that other warships can use them as they do in peacetime. Nevertheless, Turkey is trying to keep Western navies out of the Black Sea.

How does Turkey’s reaction to drifting sea mines in the Black Sea benefit Russia?

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has several times also given explanations similar to Çavuşoğlu’s, especially after drifting sea mines started to emerge in late March 2022 on the coasts of Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria. He was reported to have said on April 5: “We have suspicions that the mines were left intentionally. Maybe they were dropped as part of a plan for NATO minesweepers to enter the Black Sea to put pressure on us. But we will adhere to Montreux rules. We will not allow warships into the Black Sea. We will not allow the Black Sea to be drawn into a war.”

As stated above, Montreux rules do not give Turkey the right to refuse passage to warships other than Russian and Ukrainian vessels, contrary to what Defense Minister Akar says.

Right after that, Akar said in a video conference call on April 12 that he spoke with the British and Italian defense ministers about the passage of mine hunting ships into the Black Sea. He implied that the Turkish government finds such a move risky in a way that could be interpreted as a hostile act by Russia and offered its Western counterparts the cooperation of Turkish mine countermeasure assets. Turkey even conducted the Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) large-scale military exercise in the Black Sea on short notice in order to block the West from sending their warships into the Black Sea. Considering Akar’s statements about mines and the Montreux Convention, Turkey probably wanted to use an unplanned exercise in the Black Sea to send the message that there was no need for NATO ships to enter the Black Sea, although this was risky because of the ongoing war in the north.

Then on April 21 he said in an interview with a local newspaper: “Turkey has shut down the Straits to Russia and Ukraine, as they are warring factions. However, NATO also supports Ukraine in this war,” meaning NATO can also be categorized as a warring faction and thus Turkey’s manner of implementing Montreux, which also prohibits the passage of NATO warships, is justified.

Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın also commented on this issue in a live broadcast on November 3 and said Erdoğan gave the order to implement Montreux in a way that would ban all countries from entering the Black Sea, not just the warring parties.

As previously mentioned, Article 19 of the convention clearly states that Turkey must ban only Russian and Ukrainian warships from entering the Straits. However, the Erdoğan government is implementing the Montreux Convention in a way to prevent NATO and Western warships from entering the Black Sea, thus favoring Russia. Similar conclusions can also be found in the work of some scholars, including James Kraska, professor of international maritime law at the US Naval War College, and Cornell Overfield, associate research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses.

How does Turkey’s design of the Black Sea Grain Initiative benefit Russia?

When we closely examine the background of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, we find the very same rationale for Erdoğan’s enthusiasm for it: to prevent Western warships from entering the Black Sea.

Beginning in early April, many influential commentators, including retired generals and admirals, defense ministers, bureaucrats and CEOs of big shipping companies, started proposing that the West form a naval force to break the Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports. Grain prices reached a record high. Grain is a vital commodity, and Ukraine is one of the biggest exporters of grain in the world. In order to ease the grain crisis and also relieve the Ukrainian economy, they suggested forming export convoys of bulk carriers stuck in Ukrainian ports and leading them with warships as a humanitarian operation. But Russia said it would not allow these ships to leave Ukrainian ports unless sanctions on Russia were lifted. However, neither Ukraine nor the West would agree to lifting the sanctions because they were so effective.

Such calls increased up to mid-May and found their place at the top of the UN’s agenda. On May 19, at a meeting of foreign ministers at UN headquarters in New York chaired by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Blinken presented a roadmap for action on world food security, calling on all UN members to support the establishment of a safe corridor in the Black Sea so that Ukraine could export its grain. UN Secretary-General António Guterres also supported this roadmap. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko commented, ”The entry of warships of Western states into the Black Sea will only complicate the situation.” Russia did not want Western warships to enter the Black Sea, but the West was willing to establish a safe corridor with or without Russia’s consent. It was a stalemate for Russia because it didn’t dare get into a direct war with the West, as Russian President Vladimir Putin implied several times. But Russia would also not want Western warships to worsen the already fragile situation in the Black Sea.

Then at the end of May, Erdoğan took the stage and called the Russians to Ankara to talk about the grain crisis. Both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu implied that their leaders, Putin and Erdoğan, had personally launched the initiative. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Ukrainian government did not have any information about the meeting, nor was it invited. In the first stage, Ukraine was not included in the meetings about its own grain. It was a joint initiative of Putin and Erdoğan. Later, the UN and Ukraine were also invited. Then came the Black Sea Grain Initiative, signed by Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and the UN on July 22. A maritime humanitarian corridor has been established from the ports of Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny to the Bosporus for merchant vessels to carry grain and related foodstuffs and fertilizers. Russia has agreed to refrain from attacking merchant vessels and other civilian vessels and port facilities engaged in this initiative.

Thanks to Erdoğan, Putin again managed to find a way to prevent Western warships from entering the Black Sea and to prevent the establishment of a safe corridor under Western supervision without its control. Now in the initiative, initially designed by Russia and Turkey, the ships are inspected by joint teams, and Russia at least can slow down the process and keep it under its control. When Russia suspended its participation in the grain initiative on Oct. 29, the remaining Ukrainian, Turkish and UN-affiliated inspection teams were able to inspect 48 loaded vessels on Oct. 31 and 37 vessels on Nov. 1. But after Russia’s return to the initiative, from Nov. 3 to Nov. 8, only eight loaded vessels were cleared in six days, according to data from the initiative’s website. These numbers speak for themselves about how Russia is slowing the export of Ukrainian grain. And this is so in spite of the practical nonsense of inspecting ships loaded with grain that have come from Ukraine, checking to see if they’re carrying weapons illegally out of Ukraine.

Turkey’s biased implementation of the Montreux Convention, its reaction to drifting sea mines in the Black Sea and its design of the Black Sea Grain Initiative benefit Russia strategically by effectively keeping Western navies out of the Black Sea. In return for his favors to Russia, Erdoğan seems to be getting Russia’s support financially for his country’s poor economy and politically for Turkey’s current military operations in Syria and Iraq and possible operations against Cyprus and Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, which will ultimately benefit Russia by diverting Western attention away from Ukraine.

*Ahmet Yılmaz has a master’s degree in international security strategies. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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