Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ukraine Tensions Reignite Russian-Turkish Battle over Waterway

The Russian Navy's Ropucha-class landing ship Korolev sets sail in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey, April 17, 2021.

Russia is continuing to build up its naval presence in the Black Sea, and The Sunday Times newspaper, quoting British naval sources, said Britain is also deploying two warships to beef up NATO’s presence, as tensions over Ukraine escalate.

Access to the Black Sea is through Turkey’s Bosphorus and Dardanelles waterways which are controlled by the 1936 Montreux Convention.

Retired Turkish Ambassador Mithat Rende, a maritime law analyst, said the current tensions underlines the treaty’s importance.

“Maritime powers, which are not are riparian states, they have limited access to the Black Sea," Rende said. "Because of the limited tonnage that each country cannot keep more than thirty thousand of tonnage capacity in the Black Sea and for a period for only 21 days. So, it probably desirable for certain countries, like the United States to have an alternative to Montreux."

Earlier this month, news reports said Russian President Vladimir Putin pressed his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ensure NATO fully comply with the Montreux convention.

Huseyin Bagci of the Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara said Moscow sees the convention as key to Russian Black Sea hegemony.

“This is (the) only way which makes Black Sea at the same time a Russian sea, because the Russian navy is there dominating," Bagci said. "And the American warships are limited there. And so, it's good for Russia to have Montreux, maybe more than Turkey.”

But the future of the 80-year-old convention could be in question.

A Turkish commercial extolls the virtues of the Istanbul canal that would run parallel with the Bosphorus, offering a faster and safer passage for ships. The canal — whose construction is due to start in the coming months — is causing concern in Moscow.

Erdogan said this month the canal is not covered by Montreux, opening the door to potential unlimited use by any nation’s warships. Turkey-Russia relations analyst Zaur Gasimov at Bonn University said deliberations over Montreux gives Ankara leverage over Moscow.

“The Montreux agreement and how Turkey deals with it, that gives also a new possibility for Ankara to promote its interests in its interaction with Russia," Gasimov said. "That gives also certain leverage for Ankara to influence the situation the dynamics around the Black Sea region and even also to deepen the cooperation with the United States.”

But Erdogan’s plan is facing pushback. More than 100 retired Turkish admirals issued a statement this month, defending Montreux, claiming it guarantees Turkish control over the Bosphorus. The Turkish authorities put the admirals under investigation, accusing them of threatening the government.