Econostrum | Economic News in the Mediterranean

Turkey bans warships from Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits

Written by Frédéric Dubessy on Tuesday, March 1st 2022 à 14:50 | Read 245 times

The closure of the Turkish Straits is based on the Montreux Convention (photo: C.Garcia)
The closure of the Turkish Straits is based on the Montreux Convention (photo: C.Garcia)
TURKEY. "No more passage!" Turkey is closing its Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to all military vessels.
Mevlüt Cavusoglu made this decision on the evening of Monday 28 February 2022, specifying "whether or not they are bordering the Black Sea."

The Turkish Foreign Minister justified his decision by referring to the application of the Montreux Convention. To "prevent the escalation of the crisis", stressed its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Signed in July 1936 and entered into force in November of the same year, it designates Turkey to manage these two maritime routes and ensure their free circulation. Russia and Ukraine, as successors of the USSR, are signatories among others. Article 19 of this text gives Turkey the right to block warships in the straits in times of conflict. In fact, the Turkish government recognises the state of war.

"There has been no request for passage from either country (editor's note: Russia and Ukraine) so far," said Mevlüt Cavusoglu, while four Russian ships are reportedly waiting to cross from the Mediterranean. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Tuesday 1 March 2022, "We tell all parties that it would be beneficial to respect Montreux. It is closed to all maritime traffic, not only to Russian ships." While adding, "If a warship returns to its base in the Black Sea, its passage is not blocked. We apply the Montreux provisions." The "no more passage!" must therefore be qualified.

Ankara refuses to comply with Western sanctions

Ankara is in fact torn in the recent conflict and prefers not to stick its neck out. Kiev had asked it, as soon as hostilities broke out, not to let Russian military ships through. "We will certainly not compromise on our national interests, but we will not ignore regional and global balances either," said Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday 28 February 2022 to explain this attitude.

Even if Turkey depends on Russian gas (40% of its needs are supplied by Russia), cereals and tourists (2 million welcomed in 2021), and that the ban on access to military vessels will mainly limit the movements of the Russian Navy between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, this neutrality is surprising on at least two points.

Firstly, Turkey, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), should, in theory, unambiguously side with the Ukrainians because, by definition, it is against Russia. As it did in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. Turkish leaders did condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, calling it "unacceptable" before "saluting the struggle of the Ukrainian government and people." But Ankara has not followed the European Union's decisions to supply arms to Ukraine and to close its airspace to Russian aircraft. And it refuses to comply with Western sanctions, preferring to abstain from the Council of Europe vote to suspend Russia's representation rights.

Turkey seems to be putting its "friendship" with this country, of which it has been an objective ally since 2014, on hold. It has supplied it with some 20 combat drones and has initialled an agreement for it to produce its Bayraktar TB2 on its soil.

Turkey and Russia at odds in Syria and Libya

Second, in the two most recent conflicts in the Mediterranean, Turkey has always shown serious geostrategic differences with Russia. At stake is the desire to increase their respective influence in this part of the world. But also, the two are linked, to position themselves in the best possible way to reap the economic manna of reconstruction and the redistribution of post-war roles in these theatres.

In Syria, Russia asserted itself as the "unwavering ally" of Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey fought him by supporting all his opponents (with the notable exception of the Kurds) and even some jihadists (before joining the international coalition against the Islamic State in 2014). Turkish troops were moreover bombed by the Syrian army (33 dead).
The two countries were however careful to avoid any frontal confrontation. With one exception at the end of November 2015, when the Turkish army shot down a Sukhoi Su-24 near Latakia. The previous month, a Russian plane had incursed into Turkish airspace.

During the second Libyan civil war, Recep Tayyip Erdogan sided with the western-based Government of National Accord (GNA). He even signed several agreements with its leader Fayez el-Sarraj (including one on the delimitation of maritime borders which was very controversial). While Vladimir Putin supported Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of the East who conquered the capital Tripoli.

However, all this must be tempered by the new relations that Russia and Turkey have been building since 2017 and Ankara's choice to buy the Russian S-400 air and missile defence system (even though it is a member of Nato). Another step in the rapprochement, 2018 and the Sochi agreements allowing the creation of a de-escalation zone in the Idlib region of Syria. And above all 2020 with the signature between the two nations of a document leading to a ceasefire in this country and the establishment of joint patrols in a buffer zone. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now walking on eggshells. He does not want to offend Vladimir Putin while trying not to find himself isolated in the international concert condemning the invasion of Russia.

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