Turkey, guardian of the Bosphorus, and the Russian war against Ukraine

Since the end of the Napoleonic wars, it has been called the sick of Europe at different powers. The Ottoman Empire inaugurated the use of this epithet but others have followed it to the present day. Since then, the UK, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and post-Soviet Russia have been among the European casualties.

In the 19th century, the patient par excellence was the Ottoman Empire. Although unable to maintain control over all the territories under its sovereignty, it was seen, in turn, as the stopper necessary to halt Russian expansionism from the Black Sea coast to the Mediterranean. Hence the support given by France, the United Kingdom and Sardinia to Sultan Abdülmecit I during the Crimean conflict (1853-1856) between the Ottoman and Russian empires.

Russia aspired to have an outlet on the Mediterranean Sea to connect its Black Sea ports, since its fleet had to pass through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, under Ottoman control. This made communication between Russia and the Mediterranean virtually impossible in the event of a conflict between the empires.

Modern Turkey and control of the straits

After the First World War and until 1936, this area remained under British sovereignty. the sick The Ottoman Empire disappeared after the war and its successor, the Turkish republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was stripped of control over the strait which controlled access to the Black Sea from the Aegean.

In 1936, at the gates of the Second World War and following the Montreux Convention (Switzerland), the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty over these territories to modern Turkey.

The agreement was the product of arduous multi-party negotiation between Australia, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Japan, Romania, the USSR, the Third Reich, the United Kingdom and Yugoslavia. The United States, faithful to its interwar isolationism, and fascist Italy, still distressed by its failure to assert its territorial claims on the Anatolian peninsula, were left out of the talks. The Third Reich refused to sign the final agreement while Japan showed great reservations. The sides of the impending war were already taking shape.

The Montreux Convention sought to guarantee transit of the strait for the military and merchant fleets of all Black Sea littoral states and established significant limitations on the passage of warships from non-riparian states through the strait.

With the signing of 1936, Turkey was able to assert its interests in the event of a hypothetical conflict within the Black Sea. This treaty has not been replaced since then.

The Bosphorus Strait in Turkey joins the Black Sea with the Sea of ​​Marmara and separates Europe from Asia.
Wikimedia Commons/NASA
The Marmara Sea at the top center of the image, below the Black Sea, from which it is separated by the Bosphorus Strait, and to the right of the Aegean Sea, from which it is separated by the Dardanelles Strait.
Wikimedia Commons/NASA
The Dardanelles Strait in Turkey joins the Sea of ​​Marmara with the Aegean Sea and separates Europe from Asia.
Wikimedia Commons/NASA

No to warships

In the dynamics triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine which began on February 24, 2022, the British government has raised in recent weeks the possibility of sending one of its two new aircraft carriers with its combat group to the Black Sea. . Inside the New One UK Strategy global in the post-Brexit scenario, British imperial nostalgia has played a trick on the prime minister. This proposal is not possible.

The Montreux Convention prevents a non-coastal state from deploying such a task force beyond the Turkish Strait for several reasons. In addition, there are two NATO members among the riparian states: Romania and Turkey. The Atlantic Alliance’s naval presence in the Black Sea must be led by them, if there is a common and unanimous position on the matter.

Ankara confirmed the state of war de facto between Russia and Ukraine. It thus affirmed the Montreux Convention and its geopolitical position as the key to transit between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, of course in respect of its own interests.

Applying what was stipulated in 1936, she took the decision to close the passage of her strait to all foreign warships. This will prevent a possible escalation of the situation. NATO ships deployed in the Black Sea must exit within a maximum of 21 days after entering and may not return until Turkey authorizes it.

Russia is looking for a way to the Mediterranean

For its part, Russia will not be able to reinforce its fleet in the Black Sea from the Baltic, although it will be able to move some of its units from the Caspian through the Volga-Don channel. On the other hand, its naval base in Tartous (Syria) is also isolated from the Black Sea ports.

The link between the Syrian conflict and the Ukrainian conflict will tend to strengthen in the weeks to come. It seems to be confirmed that Russia will promote Syrian participation in the Ukrainian conflict as a shock force.

This will avoid the political cost of Russian recruits killed or injured, but it will also increase the brutality of the fighting in Ukraine and extend to this theater some of the terrible forms of combat repeated in the Syrian war.

A geostrategic decision

By its decision, Turkey defended its immediate interests in the conflict, preventing NATO and Russian ships from concentrating off its coasts with the usual risk of escalation, but it also hindered certain forms of pressure that his allies could have exercised.

Russia’s relations with Turkey over the past decade have not been easy or free from tension, but currently the two actors need each other even though their interests clash in certain scenarios. After all, Turkish drones used by Ukrainian forces attempt to be shot down by the same Russian anti-aircraft systems that Ankara bought from Moscow.

The Russian zone of influence extends beyond Eastern Europe, and in the region of the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Middle East, it meets another major regional player. Turkey today cannot be considered the sick man of Europe.

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