Turkey, Russian warship crossing the straits

Ukraine crisis: Turkey announces the closure of the straits to warships

Turkish government will apply the Montreux Convention to block the passage of warships to the Black Sea, as requested by Ukraine.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced last night that Turkey will apply the clauses of the Montreux Convention that allow it to close the passage through the straits to warships, after acknowledging for the first time that the so-called Russian “military operation” in Ukraine was has de facto turned into a warlike confrontation.

“Under these conditions, we are going to apply the Montreux Convention. Article 19 is very clear. At first, it was a Russian attack and we analysed it with experts, military and legal advisers. Now, it has turned into a war. This is not a military operation: it is officially a state of war,” told the minister Turkish to news network CNN Türk on Sunday, adding that Turkey will apply the treaty under these new circumstances.

Çavuşoğlu however said that the closure of the straits will prevent more warships from entering the Black Sea, but insisted once again that the Montreux Convention is equally clear in any case in allowing warships to return to their bases, something that Turkey cannot prevent according to the treaty. Throughout February, at least six Russian warships and one submarine passed through the straits.

“Here it is clear (what to do) if the ship is registered at a base. There must be no transgressions (of the treaty). The ship should not be involved in a conflict after communicating (to Turkey) that it is going to return to its base and cross the Bosphorus,” explained the Turkish minister, who also denied that Ankara is not supporting sanctions against Russia.

“We have made our statements (on the invasion of Ukraine), and they have been very clear. We have said that we condemn Russia’s attacks. Turkey’s position is very clear. Our goal is to support the dialogue”, said Çavuşoğlu, who also wanted to explain why Ankara chose to abstain in the Council of Europe in the vote on Russia’s suspension of its participation in the Committee of Ministers and in the Parliamentary Assembly.

What does the Montreux Convention say about passage through the straits?

In the Montreux Convention of 1936, which consists of 29 articles, Turkey regained control over the Dardanelles Straits (Çanakkale) and the Bosphorus (in Istanbul), lost in 1918 after the defeat in World War I in favor of the United Kingdom, in exchange for guaranteeing the free transit of civilian ships in times of peace. Turkey was also allowed to remilitarise the straits.

The treaty also gives Turkey the power to regulate the naval transit of foreign warships, and to block their passage in times of war or in case of a threat to its security. In addition, the Convention limits the passage of warships from states not bordering the Black Sea, which are subject to many restrictions; for example, they must have less than 15,000 tons of displacement, and they cannot remain in Black Sea waters for more than 21 days. Nor are these countries allowed to cross the straits with large fleets (maximum 9 ships or 30,000 tons).

Turkey, straits

The closure of the passage through the straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus – which connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Black Sea – was already in force during World War II, in which Turkey was neutral, and was key to preventing the troops of Nazi Germany from having maritime support, so that the Soviet Union was able to maintain dominance in the Black Sea during the conflict. After the war, the USSR’s desire to control the straits pushed Turkey to break its neutrality in favor of the West, and finally to join NATO in 1952.

Turkey, divided between its agreements with Russia, and its ties with Ukraine

Çavuşoğlu further reported that Turkey is making great efforts to safely evacuate some 6,600 Turkish citizens from Ukraine, who began arriving on Sunday morning across the border with Bulgaria after crossing through Romania, due to the closure of Ukrainian airspace because of the conflict.

The statements made yesterday by the Turkish foreign minister represent an important gesture towards Ukraine, which had asked Turkey to close the straits, but also a change in the rhetoric used by the Turkish government, which until now had not referred to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “war”, but as a Russian military operation. Ankara has important cooperation agreements with Moscow in defence or energy, but also important political, cultural, historical and economic ties with Ukraine, whose territorial integrity it supports since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.