March 3, 2022
The Turkish Government has decided to close the Turkish Straits to all warships as a result of Russia’s military offensive against Ukraine. So, I thought that an updated version of a post I had written two years ago could be timely.
Two years ago, I was trying to draw attention to the risks of the politically, financially, and environmentally extravagant, and totally unnecessary “Canal Istanbul” project. With the decline of the Turkish economy, the project is unfortunately not dead yet, but it has moved way down on the Government’s agenda. Today, not only Turkey’s but the world’s attention is focused on the Russian offensive against Ukraine. Thus, the Montreux Convention has once again become a topic of interest. And this may prove the last nail in the coffin for the Canal Istanbul project.
As Tsarist Russia started to emerge as a European power in the early 18th century, during the reign of Peter the Great, its eyes were set on İstanbul and the Turkish Straits. Because there was no way Russia could emerge as a naval power without easy access to the warm seas, that is the Mediterranean. Russia’s main fleet, naval base, and shipyards were in the eastern Baltic and frozen throughout the long winter season. Russia also had naval bases on the Pacific but supplying them was extremely difficult given the huge distances and lack of railway transport until much later.
For example, Russia’s defeat in the 1905 Japan-Russia war was partly the result of its inability to shore up its Pacific fleet.
The Black Sea Fleet was closer than the Baltic one, but under the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, Russia had no right to send warships through the Straits, as London had reminded St. Petersburg at the time. So, in October 1904, the Tsar asked Admiral Rozhdestvensky, commander of the Baltic Fleet to relieve Port Arthur – by way of the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea. It took Admiral Rozhdestvensky eight months to reach the Straits of Tsushima and by that time neither his vessels nor his crew was in shape to confront the Japanese.[i]
Moreover, “the question of the Straits concerned the security of Russia’s trade. What really worried the government was Russian exports, because on these depended the empire’s favourable trade balance and therefore the government’s entire strategy of economic development. In 1910, according to the Naval General Staff, 43.3 percent of Russian exports passed through Russia’s Black Sea ports, including the overwhelming majority of grain exports… The Ukrainian and Russian regions whose produces flowed through the Black Sea were the most dynamic regions of the empire’s economy.”[ii]
Thus, during the 1853-1856 Crimean War Russian exports suffered. During the 1877-1878 Turkish-Russian war, Russian forces were at the gates of İstanbul but their exports again suffered. The Turkish-Italian war of 1911-1912 also caused great loss to Russia’s trade.
In the background to these lay, needless to say, Tsarist Russia’s Pan-Slavism ideology which drew inspiration from its history, ethno-religious identity, and the desire to restore the Greek-Orthodox empire. Pan-Slavism had many advocates, but also a few critics.
A century ago, Tsarina Catherine the Great had named his older grandson Alexander and the younger Konstantin, hoping that the latter would someday lead that Greek-Orthodox empire. When she met with Habsburg Emperor Joseph II in Mogilev in 1789, to discuss the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, she made no secret of her vision of Byzantium revived under her grandson’s rule.[iii]
After the invasion of Libya by Italy in 1911, and the First Balkan War at the end of which the Ottoman Empire lost most of its territories in Europe, the demise of the empire was a foregone conclusion. Decades and decades of decadent rule, failure to grasp let alone keep pace with political, economic, cultural, and technological progress had brought the once-mighty empire to a point where its territories and even its capital were up for grabs. Major powers were making plans for their claims on Ottoman territories and these were being taken up in intensive diplomatic talks among them. The beginning of the First World War only added momentum to the process. Tsarist Russia saw the War as the greatest opportunity to get hold of İstanbul and the Turkish Straits.
The negotiations regarding the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire among the three Entente allies took some time. Britain and France knew that they had to keep Russia in the war if they were to avoid a German victory on the western front. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey was forthcoming, largely ready with what his country would expect in return for yielding İstanbul and the Straits to Russia. French Foreign Minister Théophile Delcassé was more hesitant because of the prospect of Russian power expanding to the Mediterranean. Russian Foreign Minister Serge Sazonov played his cards well. At times he threatened the British and French Ambassadors with resigning his post unless Russia’s demands were met. What his threat implied was a separate peace with Germany by his more conservative successors.
Finally, “Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges Picot, after negotiating potential British and French spheres of influence in the Middle East, arrived in Petrograd in March 1916 to finalize Ottoman partition terms with Sazonov inside the Russian Foreign Ministry. In addition to the areas she had already conquered, the notorious Sazonov-Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916 gave Russia İstanbul and the Straits in case the allies won the war, fulfilling the ambition of every emperor since Catherine the Great.”[iv]
Nonetheless, the project failed.
Firstly, Allied defeat and withdrawal from Gallipoli in January 1916 proved that Turkey was not going to be written off so easily. Thus, Britain and France failed to join with Russia across the Mediterranean, the Straits, and the Black Sea, preventing them from sending much-needed supplies to their ally. Whether Serge Sazonov would have been delighted to see that happen is far from certain. Because that might have led Russia’s two allies to be less generous during the diplomatic process which ended with their acceptance of Russia’s demands in March 1916, only two months later.
Secondly, the Bolshevik revolution ended the tsarist rule, made public all the imperialistic secret agreements concluded with Britain and France and on March 3, 1918, in Brest-Litovsk, Russia’s new leaders signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria) ending its participation in the First World War.
Later, despite energetic lobbying at the Paris Peace Conference by such old-regime diplomats (as former foreign ministers) Izvolsky and Sazonov, the Whites simply had no diplomatic leverage, as they discovered when their request for a role in the postwar Straits regime, pursuant to the old Sazonov-Sykes-Picot Agreement, was summarily dismissed.[v]
On June 28, 1919, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles brought the First World War to an end. A little more than a month before that, on May 19, 1919, Ataturk had landed in Samsun raising the flag for Turkey’s War of Independence. Roughly four years later, on July 24, 1923, the Lausanne Peace Treaty was signed sending the Treaty of Sèvres into the dustbin of history.
Part of the Lausanne peace architecture was the Convention Relating to the Régime of the Straits.
The Convention stipulated that the zones on both shores of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus and islands in the Sea of Marmara as well as the Aegean the islands of Samothrace, Lemnos, Imbros, Tenedos, and Rabbit Islands would be demilitarized.
It also said:
“Complete freedom of passage by day and by night under any flag, without any formalities, or tax, or charge whatever, but subject to the following restrictions as to the total force:
“The maximum force which any one Power may send through the Straits into the Black Sea is not to be greater than that of the most powerful fleet of the littoral Powers of the Black Sea existing in that sea at the time of passage; but with the proviso that the Powers reserve to themselves the right to send into the Black Sea, at all times and under all circumstances, a force of not more than three ships, of which no individual ship shall exceed 10,000 tons.”
The Lausanne Convention was a way out of the promises made by the Allies to Tsarist Russia. But its terms of demilitarization limited Turkish sovereignty. Moreover, it had established a “Straits Commission” to oversee the implementation of the Convention.
As the clouds for another major confrontation started gathering in Europe, Turkey under the leadership of Ataturk asked for its revision. Thus, the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits was signed on July 20, 1936.
With the Montreux Convention, the Straits Commission was abolished. Turkish sovereignty was restored. And full Turkish military control over the Straits including their fortification was restored. The next day, Turkish daily Cumhuriyet’s headlines read: “Straits Convention Was Signed Yesterday Evening” “After 13 Years, a Retrieve to Last for Eternity”. Indeed,this was a landmark diplomatic victory for Turkey reflecting the farsightedness of Ataturk and his colleagues who succeeded in bringing interested parties to the table at a time when Europe was heading again towards a major conflict.
The Convention has a number of specific restrictions regarding the passage of naval vessels. For example, the maximum aggregate tonnage of all foreign naval forces which may be in course of transit through the Straits cannot exceed 15.000 tons. These forces, however, must not comprise more than nine vessels. Black Sea Powers may send through the Straits capital ships of tonnage greater than 15.000 tons, on condition that these vessels pass through the Straits singly, escorted by not more than two destroyers.
In a nutshell, the Montreux Convention again struck a balance between the interests of the Soviet Union and foreign powers.
Today, former USSR allies Bulgaria and Romania are members of NATO and the EU. Ukraine and Georgia are independent states. In other words, the picture has changed. Yet, the fundamental reality remains: The Montreux Convention diligently implemented by Turkey has prevented the Black Sea from becoming an area of military confrontation even in the darkest days of the Cold War. Many Black Sea coastal states may have chosen different paths for themselves. But they too would prefer the status quo to new tensions.
For centuries, Russia’s dream was to have İstanbul, the Marmara region, and the Straits. Even Joseph Stalin tried to revive Russia’s older claims which he later withdrew. This can no longer be the case. However, Russia would prefer the continuation of the Montreux order to avoid new uncertainties and challenges, particularly after the annexation of Crimea with Sevastopol home to its Black Sea Fleet.
Turkey has now closed the Turkish Straits to warships.
On February 28, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu said this has now become a war, and “We have informed all coastal-states of the Black Sea and non-coastal states that the Straits are closed to warships…” In case of war, Turkey being belligerent, this is left to Turkey’s discretion. If Turkey is not belligerent, she can close the Straits to belligerent powers. If warships are returning to their bases, this is allowed. We are implementing, as always, what the Convention says…”
Then, other senior officials also started talking. Some made explicit references to articles 19, 20, and 21 of the Convention. The decision to close the Straits to warships must have been taken at the highest level. Whatever the merits of the decision may be, the government agency responsible for the implementation of the Montreux Convention is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a statement by the Ministry would have been the best way to announce it to the domestic and foreign public beyond official notifications to signatories of the Convention and the UN. Because a discordant choir would only lead to confusion.
What does the Convention say on the closure of the Straits to warships?
Article 19 says, “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 Article 10 to 18.” But it allows vessels of war belonging to belligerent powers, whether they are Black Sea powers or not, to return to their bases.
Article 19 also says, “Vessels of war belonging to belligerent Powers shall not however, pass through the Straits except in cases arising out of the application of Article 25 of the present Convention, and in cases of assistance rendered to a State victim of aggression in virtue of a treaty of mutual assistance binding-Turkey, concluded within the framework of the Covenant of the League of Nations, and registered and published in accordance with the provisions of Article 18 of the Covenant.”
Since the signing of the Montreux Convention the United Nations has replaced the League of Nations.
Ukraine may be considered as a “State victim of aggression” but not “in virtue of a treaty of mutual assistance binding Turkey”.
Article 20 says, “In time of war, Turkey being belligerent, the provisions of Articles 10 to 18 shall not be applicable; the passage of warships shall be left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish Government.” Since Turkey is not belligerent, this article does not apply.
Article 21, reads, “Should Turkey consider herself to be threatened with imminent danger of war she shall have the right to apply the provisions of Article 20 of the present Convention.” If Turkey were to invoke this Article it would have to send a notification to the High Contracting Parties and to the Secretary-General of the League of Nations. In other words, under this article, the passage of warships is again left to Turkey’s discretion. This article allows warships to return to their bases. But Turkey may deny this right to vessels of war belonging to the State whose attitude has given rise to the imminent danger of war.
Article 21 also says, “If the Council of the League of Nations decide by a majority of two-thirds that the measures thus taken by Turkey are not justified, and if such should also be the opinion of the majority of the High Contracting Parties signatories to the present Convention, the Turkish Government undertakes to discontinue the measures in question…”
As for merchant vessels, Article 2 of the Convention says, “In time of peace, merchant vessels shall enjoy complete freedom of transit and navigation in the Straits, by day and by night, under any flag and with any kind of cargo, without any formalities…”, except for sanitary control.
Article 4 reads, “In time of war, Turkey not being belligerent, merchant vessels, under any flag or with any kind of cargo, shall enjoy freedom of transit and navigation in the Straits…”
And Article 5 reads, “In time of war, Turkey being belligerent, merchant vessels not belonging to a country at war with Turkey shall enjoy freedom of transit and navigation in the Straits on condition that they do not in any way assist the enemy.”
So much for the closure of the Straits to warships.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to upheaval in Europe. Upheaval because the invasion of Ukraine has shattered the belief that major powers would engage in conflicts in places like the Middle East but not in Europe. The Western reaction has gone far beyond the expected sanctions with Germany, Finland, and Sweden sending arms to Ukraine, debates in the latter two about joining NATO, and Russian fighter jets violating Swedish airspace. And as expected, some are questioning why the peoples of the West had not reacted in the same way to the invasion of Iraq, loss of civilian life in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
Yesterday, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” It was sponsored by more than 90 countries and needed a two-thirds majority in the Assembly to pass. Five countries – Belarus, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Russia, and Syria – voted against it, while 35 abstained.
President Biden in his State of the Union address said, “We see unity among the people who are gathering in cities in large crowds around the world, even in Russia, to demonstrate their support for the people of Ukraine.” But the West should make sure that its sanctions do not make those protesters in Russia regret their action. I wonder if the banning of Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing at the Paralympics is the right decision.
The invasion of Ukraine is rapidly becoming a huge foreign and security policy challenge for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Beyond NATO meetings among all members, Ankara was not an active participant in allied consultations before and after the Russian onslaught. Statements by government leaders and senior officials are not in harmony. Some are trying to make the Russian offensive against Ukraine and the latter’s call for membership in the EU a case for the relaunching of the accession process with Turkey. Whether the current picture is the result of being caught off guard or a new phase of its balancing act between the West and Russia remains to be seen. Perhaps, the Ukraine ordeal will finally convince AKP that returning to the democratic path is the dictate of Turkey’s national interests.
Today, Russian and Ukrainian delegations are supposed to meet in Brest (formerly known as Brest-Litovsk). Interestingly, today is the 104th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Bolsheviks and Germany and its allies.
By signing the Treaty, Russia lost Finland, the Baltic Provinces, Poland, and Georgia. German troops occupied Crimea, which Ludendorff s saw as an area of future German colonization. Above all, Moscow had to concede Ukrainian independence.[vi] But soon after, the war took a different turn.
Hopefully, today’s talk would result in a cease-fire.
[i] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, A New History, Profile Books, London, 2017, p.33.
[ii] Dominic Lieven, Towards the Flame, Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia, Penguin Books, 2016, pages 74-5.
[iii] Altay Cengizer, Adil Hafızanın Işığında Osmanlı’nın Son Savaşı, Doğan Kitap, 2014, pages 552-553.
[iv] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, A New History, Profile Books, London, 2017, p.74.
[v] Ibid. p 288.
[vi] Dominic Lieven, Towards the Flame, Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia, Penguin Books, 2016, page 358.