Russians are angry at the expanded presence of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ships in the Black Sea and especially in Ukrainian ports, viewing them as a challenge to Russian power and influence there. Some in Moscow and especially in Russian-occupied Crimea are even concerned that the United States is preparing to denounce the 1936 Montreux Convention, which governs the passage of military vessels through the Turkish Straits, so that the Western naval presence in the Black Sea can be expanded still further (Tsargrad.tv, April 1). That has triggered a debate in Moscow over whether it should seek a revision of the more-than-80-year-old treaty as a way to counter NATO or whether, as many believe, the Montreux Convention and Ankara’s support for it remain the best defense for Russian regional interests (Topcor.ru, March 30; Politexpert.net, March 31; 66news.ru, April 2).
After its defeat in World War I, Turkey lost control of the Straits. Passage of ships—both naval and civilian—became regulated by the International Straits Commission, which was made up of representatives of the victorious Allied powers. The Turkish government, not surprisingly, felt this was an unacceptable limitation on its sovereignty and pressed, from the mid-1920s onward, for an end to this situation. By the mid-1930s, Ankara’s calls received support both in the West and in the Soviet Union given that the international situation had fundamentally changed. As a result, representatives of the major powers in Europe and the Soviet Union (but not the United States) met in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1936, and agreed to restore Turkish control over the Straits. The resulting treaty reflected and sought to balance Ankara’s desire to maximize that control, Moscow’s desire to exclude Western warships from the Black Sea and thus allow it to dominate the situation there, and Western desire to be able to project power into the Black Sea region.
The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, as it is officially known, required Turkey to allow free passage for commercial vessels except in time of war or when it was threatened by an outside power; but it imposed significant restrictions on foreign naval ships even during peacetime. According to the Convention, no one country could put more than nine naval vessels displacing no more than 15,000 tons into the Black Sea; and no group of non–Black Sea littoral states could insert naval vessels weighing more than 45,000 tons. Moreover, the Convention specified that no such vessel could remain in the Black Sea for more than 21 days.
Since that time, all parties except Turkey have expressed their interest in a revision of the Montreux Convention at one point or another. Now, with the arrival of NATO ships, ever more Russian politicians and experts are suggesting that it should be revised before the West disposes of it altogether. Their chief demand, sounded first in Russian-occupied Crimea and repeated by some in the Russian capital, is that the length of time that foreign war ships can remain in the sea should be reduced lest the ships be in a position to be on more or less permanent station—an outcome that would be totally unacceptable to Moscow (Tsargrad.tv, April 1).
Senior Russian military analyst Mikhail Aleksandrov, of the foreign ministry’s Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), has argued that NATO’s projection of military power into the Black Sea puts the future of the Montreux Convention in doubt. And he suggested that Moscow should respond to the challenge NATO ships present by calling for a revision of the Convention. That would, he claimed, be “a good idea” (Politexpert.net, March 31). But despite the calls for change by legislators in Russian-occupied Crimea (Moika78.ru, March 30), Aleksandrov maintained that Moscow should not take any steps in that direction without gaining the support of Turkey, a country whose government is unlikely to give it (Rueconomics.ru, March 31, April 1).
On the one hand, Aleksandrov argued, the West could be counted on to play up the threat any revision of Montreux would have to Turkish sovereignty and use that to keep Ankara in the Western column. And on the other hand, Turkey, too, has an interest in keeping outside ships in the Black Sea to a minimum and thus (at least at present) serves as Moscow’s best ally in limiting a NATO presence there (Politexpert.net, March 31).
Other Russian commentators agree. Aleksandr Zbitnyev, for example, adds that “any revision of the Convention or its replacement by a more up-to-date treaty would inevitably lead to a strengthening of the Turkish position”—Montreux, after all, was adopted when Turkey was much weaker than it is today—and that would “harm all other countries, including Russia” (66news.ru, April 2). He further argues that if Russian experts or politicians raise this issue too often, it will not only drive Ankara into the hands of NATO but also prompt the West to support Turkey’s construction of a canal bypassing the Straits. Such a canal would not be governed by the Montreux Convention, Zbitnyev says; and consequently, the West could introduce far more ships for far longer, exactly the reverse of what Moscow wants.
This back-and-forth discussion in Russia does not mean Moscow is not interested in changing the terms of the 1936 Convention; it very much is. But at present, it feels that it cannot move forward too publicly in that direction lest it create a situation that would lead to a deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations and more firmly cement Turkey in the Western alliance. Consequently, Moscow is likely to tone down its rhetoric—Duma members have said as much to Crimean deputies (Moika78.ru, March 30)—while pursuing talks about possible changes via less public diplomatic channels.