A Russian submarine passes Istanbul when it passes the Bosphorus in February 2022. Turkey is the gatekeeper between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
Ozan Kose | Afp | Getty Images
There’s a Turkish saying, “Did your ships sink in the Black Sea?” The term is asked when a person is lost in thought and trying to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem.
As it turns out, it is the body of water itself that has kept Turkey on a geopolitically tight leash since Russia invaded Ukraine and began military operations from these waters – because Turkey controls access to the Black Sea.
After Turkey’s war of independence officially ended with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the Strait of Bosphorus and the Dardanelles were demilitarized. Access to and from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean was brought under the control of an International Straits Commission.
But with the political situation deteriorating in Europe prior to World War II, Turkey sought to amend the agreement and negotiate the Montreux Convention in 1936. To this day, Turkey’s control of the strait between Europe and Asia gives it a unique naval power.
The Bosphorus and the Dardanelles are the only waterways in or out of the Black Sea. It gives Turkey influence on how Russia’s navy can move.
Bryn Bache | CNBC
In fact, Turkey’s enforcement of Montreux is blocking Russia from reinforcing its Black Sea fleet from outside or from moving warships now in the Black Sea back to the Mediterranean.
“These provisions do not change much in the balance of power in the Black Sea,” Sinan Ulgen told CNBC. The former Turkish diplomat is now a visiting researcher at Carnegie Europe.
“But, “said the Wolf,” as soon as these Russian ships belonging to the Black Sea Fleet are in the Black Sea, they will not be able to return to the Mediterranean. In the long run, it could pose a problem for Russia’s power projection capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean, and especially Syria. “
The sinking of the Russian warship Moscow in the Black Sea on April 14 highlighted Russia’s dilemma: Moscow must convince Turkey to open the Bosphorus and Dardanelles if it wants to replace Moscow – which was Russia’s Black Sea flagship – or move the Black Sea Fleet away from Ukraine.
Rising tensions between Turkey and Russia?
Moscow and Ankara have not yet experienced sharp disagreements with each other over Ukraine. But there is concern that their relationship may become more tense.
Turkey is trying to bring peace between Russia and Ukraine and has not imposed sanctions on Russia.
But Turkey is a member of NATO. And in what may be a sign of escalation between Turkey and Russia, Turkey on Saturday closed its airspace to Russian planes trying to fly into Syria.
In 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian jet on the border with Syria, where Moscow was fighting on behalf of the Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Moscow responded with a ban on imports of Turkish food and workers.
Ulgen said the Montreux Convention could set Turkey and Russia up against each other again.
“It is unclear how long the validity of Article 19 will be valid,” he said, adding that it “was triggered by the Turkish recognition that there is a war.”
“We could witness a scenario,” he said, “in which Russia claims the war is over, but the international community and Turkey do not recognize it.”
Ulgen said he believes Turkey will continue to abide by the letter of the Montreux Convention because the use of flexibility on the one hand in the war could create enormous pressure on the other.
“Turkey does not want to find itself in that position,” he said.