The struggle for dominance over the Black Sea, and thus the Turkish Straits, has its roots in centuries. The vast Black Sea basin, which connects the Balkans to the Caucasus and the Middle East, includes the dimension of access to the Mediterranean Sea and provides connuity and connecvity between Europe and the Eurasian landmass, has been one of the constant subjects of rivalry between great powers throughout history.

During the Cold War, Turkey, as the only NATO member in the region, played an important role by undertaking to protect both the marime security of the Black Sea and the terrestrial connecons of the region against the Soviet Bloc. Throughout this obligaon, it has implemented the Montreux Convenon on the basis of a consistent and consistent atude that has been respected by its allies, including the hosle Bloc countries it is posioned against.

With the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR, which were the main sources of threat in the post-Cold War era, and the emphasis on cooperaon among the former adversary powers, Turkey, despite the exisng frozen conflicts in the region, has tended to advance both marime security in line with the principle of regional ownership in the Black Sea with an understanding that will also observe the obligaons of the Alliance, and by emphasizing security cooperaon on land (between the countries of the region), which cannot be considered separately from this.

Turkey’s posioning, which is based on Turkey meeng its own security needs, including marime security, as much as possible from the region itself, was dealt its first blow with the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Parallel to the relave harmonizaon observed in Western-Russian relaons, Turkey’s approach based on cooperaon and confidence-building measures in the marime security of the Black Sea since the end of the 1990s has begun to bear fruit through various iniaves such as BLACKSEAFOR and Operaon Black Sea Harmony (OBSH), while Russia’s revisionist preferences and acons, which are unique to Russia but incompable with the interests of the litoral states in the first place, have had consequences that have disrupted the security and stability of the Black Sea region in general.

Russia’s invasion and annexaon of Crimea in 2014 and its aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 not only deeply shook the security of the Euro-Atlanc region, but also upset the balances in the Black Sea region.

NATO’s core strategy document, adopted at the NATO Leaders’ Summit in Madrid in June 2022 with Turkey’s approval as a member of the Alliance, idenfies Russia as the most important and direct threat to the Alliance. The document states that marime security is key to peace and prosperity and underlines the strategic importance of the “Western” Balkans and the Black Sea region for NATO. In March of the same year, the EU’s Strategic Compass document also makes two references to the Black Sea in the context of marime security, but gives more weight to the security of the Eastern Mediterranean.

With the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO before the NATO Vilnius Summit in July 2023, Russia was completely encircled by the Alliance members in the Balc Sea, and as a result, the Black Sea, along with the Arcc region, became the center of gravity of the power struggle on an observable scale.

Already in 2014, in response to Russia’s invasion and annexaon of Crimea, NATO began to take a series of measures to bolster the defense of its three Black Sea litoral members (Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria). In the process of implemenng these measures, a group of members, led by the United States, parcularly on NATO’s military wing, have tended to present the Montreux Convenon as an ‘obstacle’ to access to the Black Sea for non-coastal Alliance naval forces. Ankara openly opposed this approach at the NATO Council and consistently argued at every opportunity that Montreux, as a mullateral Convenon, was an integral part of internaonal law and that it was an obligaon for allied countries to abide by it. Turkey’s posion was supported at the me by allies such as Germany, France and Italy, who were opposed to further provoking Russia in the Black Sea.

By 2022, the picture has changed. Along with terrorism, Russia is idenfied by NATO as one of the main sources of threat. In an environment where Russia has increased its aggression against Ukraine, including targeng civilians, the US and almost all of its European allies have a different perspecve on Black Sea security. In this context, there are those who take a hardline stance against the Montreux Convenon, as well as analysts who advocate a relavely soer and long-term approach that integrates Black Sea security with the Mediterranean.

In response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine that began in 2022, Turkey applied the relevant warme provisions of Montreux and banned warships, including those of litoral states, from passing through the Turkish Straits. This was a step in the right direcon and was generally welcomed by both allied countries, Ukraine and Russia. There were also negave repercussions for Turkey in this process. The words of the then Speaker of the Turkish Grand Naonal Assembly, implying that Turkey could withdraw from the Montreux Convenon if necessary by a unilateral decision that excluded the Parliament, are a case in point. Despite this unfortunate statement in 2021, Ankara’s decision to close the Straits to warships, to bring together senior Russian and Ukrainian officials in Antalya and Istanbul for peace talks in 2022, and to play a leading role in the signing of the Grain Corridor Agreement all resonated posively with the world community. This overall picture clearly demonstrated that the Montreux Convenon did not hinder the search for and atempts to stabilize the region in an environment of deteriorang peace.

In the summer of 2023, Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia did not yield the desired results and the conflicts between the two belligerents intensified, extending into 2024. Even though the Ukrainian counteroffensive did not achieve the expected level of success, Ukraine has carried out some effecve atacks against the Russian naval fleet in the Black Sea, especially with unmanned aerial and ground vehicles based on new and smart technologies. As a result of these operaons, important elements of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet were disabled and those that could not be destroyed were forced to deploy in the eastern Black Sea. There is no doubt that the real-me intelligence provided to Ukraine, as well as the Idenfied Sea and Air Picture (the locaons of enemy elements at sea and in the air) played a decisive role in this success. In this context, the Montreux Convenon did not appear to be an obstacle to this support to Ukraine.

Despite the balance in the Black Sea starng to turn against Russia and Turkey’s assistance and support provided to Ukraine, it is observed that some circles of the US administraon, through their think tanks, have given new impetus to the searches and iniaves targeng the Montreux Convenon and aimed at stretching this legal document. In this framework, it is also seen that the US has found allies in the region to support it in this quest.

It is known that NATO has increased the deterrence and defense of the allied countries in the region against Russia to the highest level of the post-Cold War period since 2014. Not content with the deterrence capacity that is being strengthened, it does not seem to be the preferred path of the Biden administraon, at least at the moment, to put forward acons that would bring the US and/or NATO into direct conflict with Russia in the Black Sea. The approach of Trump, who is expected to be one of the US Presidenal candidates, to the ongoing war in Ukraine is ambivalent.

In the face of the expected visit from Turkey to the United States in May 2024, NATO’s 75th Anniversary Summit in July 2024, the US Presidenal elecons in November, and the expectaon that the war in Ukraine will connue this year, it is not a foregone conclusion that globally based and regionally supported demands and/or iniaves that may closely affect the Montreux Convenon in relaon to Black Sea security will become topical again.

It is possible to summarize the factors and pracces that may form the basis for the preempve approach that Turkey should follow in the face of opinions and possible atempts to stretch or change the Montreux regime, which Turkey has meculously implemented since its signing in 1936, as follows:

  • Turkey has acted within a framework that would not exclude Russia in a possible future peace agreement, but would provide both bilateral and mullateral (NATO) support to Ukraine in the ongoing war. Although this approach has occasionally led to cricism from some allied countries, there is no doubt that this path has been realisc.
  • The NATO strategy adopted at the level of Heads of State and Government acknowledges that Russia poses a significant and direct threat to the Alliance, and Ankara has been acvely contribung to the implementaon of deterrence and defense measures at all levels and in all geographies, including the Black Sea. It is the right choice for Ankara to maintain this stance based on its long-term interests.
  • It should be aware that Black Sea security cannot be linked only to the marime domain, but also requires measures in the air, land, cyber, hybrid and space dimensions.
  • At a me when NATO member states were debang whether to provide kinec military capabilies to Ukraine, Turkey supplied unmanned aerial vehicles to this neighboring country with which it has established strategic relaons and implemented projects to improve the capacity and capability of the Ukrainian navy. In the current circumstances, it should connue its efforts to strengthen Ukraine’s defense.
  • It takes necessary measures in solidarity with its litoral allies in situaons threatening Black Sea security. For example, it played a leading role in the implementaon of the Black Sea Mine Countermeasures Task Group iniave in a trilateral framework (Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria) against loose mines that threaten safe navigaon in the internaonal waters of the Black Sea. There is no doubt that this operaon conducted by the three NATO allies will contribute to NATO’s deterrence in the region. In the future, if necessary, similar regional cooperaon frameworks should connue to be developed in the context of marime security that will not adversely affect the Montreux regime.
  • The Montreux regime is not an obstacle to support Ukraine from the air, land, cyberspace and space. Indeed, allied support to Ukraine in these four operaonal areas connues uninterrupted.
  • There is no obstacle for NATO’s three allies in the region to move towards strengthening marime security in the Black Sea among themselves with surface and underwater capabilies through unmanned aerial and naval vehicles. In the current circumstances, it is all the more important that they invest jointly in this area, undertake joint iniaves and develop their capacies. Finding ways to involve Ukraine and Georgia in capacity and capability building processes is also important and a priority.
  • At the current stage, Russia in Ukraine and Israel in Gaza have been acng in defiance of internaonal law. While such challenges support the construcon of a “global system based on rulelessness” on geopolical grounds and interests, they play a destrucve role for the world order based on law and rules. In an environment of disorder where internaonal law is being tested to such an extent, it is not a choice, but an obligaon

to be vigilant against discourses, opinions and approaches aimed at opening the mullateral Montreux Convenon, which constutes an integral link of this law, to discussion. It is clear that atempts or atudes to the contrary will serve no other purpose than to carry water to the mill of conflict in the region. This vigilant stance should not be seen as an obstacle to inter-allied solidarity and cooperaon to meet the Russian threat in the region. Similarly, the Montreux regime does not constute a prohibive framework for supporng Ukraine in its struggle for existence. Indeed, Ukraine’s success at sea against Russia in the Black Sea, despite the stagnaon in other conflict lines, is proof of this.

In the coming short period, there will be important visits from abroad to Turkey and from Turkey to abroad. The NATO Summit is also approaching. Important decisions on Ukraine are expected to be taken at the summit. In the context of both the visits and the decisions to be taken at a series of summits, it would be in line with Turkey’s long-term interests for Turkey to take a decisive stance against possible demands that are incompable with the Montreux regime.

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