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Turkey Walks a Tightrope on Ukraine
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Turkey Walks a Tightrope on Ukraine

It closed the Turkish Straits to most Russian ships—but also most NATO ships.

Four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced his country would limit the transit of warships, including Russia’s, through the Turkish Straits in accordance with the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates civilian and military transit to the Black Sea. Minutes later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked Cavusoglu for Ankara’s “continued implementation” of the pact. The Financial Times echoed many other Western observers when it called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision “a striking move from a leader who has fostered close ties with [Vladimir] Putin,” and asked whether this represented “a recalibration of Turkey’s ties with the west.”

Curiously, Russia also welcomed the Turkish action. Two days after Ankara invoked the convention, Alexei Yerkhov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, expressed Moscow’s “appreciation” of Turkey’s “protection” of and “compliance” with it. The Kremlin does not seem to think that Ankara’s move was hostile: On March 7, Moscow not only excluded Turkey from its list of 48 states that “commit unfriendly actions against Russia,” but also agreed to have Turkey host a meeting—scheduled for Thursday—between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. The planned meeting in the Turkish resort city Antalya suggests the Kremlin still sees Turkey as a neutral party to facilitate Russian negotiations with Kyiv.

If Ankara’s implementation of the Montreux Convention was such a blow to Russia, as some Western observers argue, why did the Kremlin appear unbothered by it? The answer is that Erdoğan implemented the 1936 pact in a manner that closes the straits to almost all NATO ships for the duration of the war, a boon to Russia. The convention requires Turkey to restrict only the passage of warships that belong to belligerents, so Erdoğan effectively did Putin a favor. Yet the Biden administration is so eager to keep Erdoğan on its side that it praises half-measures. Therein lies the effectiveness of the Turkish president’s balancing act between Russia and NATO in the Ukraine war. Turkey is a NATO member, but under Erdoğan’s 20-year rule, the country has deepened energy, trade, and defense partnerships with Russia. Rather than insist that Turkey abide by NATO principles, the Biden administration has rewarded its infidelity.

The historian Howard Eissenstat explained Ankara’s latest move as part of its strategy of “noisy diplomacy,” which involves “engag[ing] in steps that underline [Turkey’s] importance while minimizing its risk.” He added, “In this crisis, Turkey has attempted to play the role of important international participant, while doing as little as possible to antagonize either NATO or Russia.”

In stark contrast to its NATO allies, the Erdoğan government has resisted taking punitive action against Russia since the beginning of the war. Turkey opposes any sanctions against the country, just as it challenged sanctions against Iran and Venezuela. Ankara also aided the Kremlin by abstaining in the Council of Europe’s February 25 vote to suspend Russia. Likewise, Turkish airspace is one of the last NATO airspaces that remains open to Russia.

When Ukraine asked Turkey to close the Turkish Straits in accordance with the 1936 Montreux Convention, it took Ankara three days to recognize that Russia’s invasion constitutes war, which is the convention’s precondition for introducing transit restrictions. It took the government another day to implement the convention’s restrictions concerning the passage of warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles. This was a significant move, since Turkey did not label earlier Russian aggression in Georgia, Crimea, or eastern Ukraine as war.

But when it comes to Erdoğan’s implementation of the Montreux Convention, the devil is in the details. Article 19 would have enabled Turkey to restrict the transit of warships through the Turkish Straits starting on February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. However, Ankara not only waited until February 28 while it calibrated its balancing act, but also applied these restrictions to both Black Sea and non-Black Sea countries, effectively shutting the Black Sea to NATO navies. That was a choice, not a requirement, of the pact.

Although Article 19 of the Montreux Convention allows Turkey to restrict transit to vessels of war belonging to belligerent parties, the Erdoğan government appears to have also implemented Article 21, which states, “Should Turkey consider herself to be threatened with imminent danger of war,” Ankara can then deny transit to all warships, with certain exceptions for the vessels of Black Sea countries. This includes all NATO warships wanting to enter the Black Sea. As Jill Goldenziel argued in Forbes magazine, “Turkey could have easily blocked only belligerent [ships]—or Russian ships. It likely chose to block all warships to avoid the appearance of taking sides against Russia.”

The Montreux Convention also provides special provisions for countries bordering the Black Sea that will make the Erdoğan government’s move even more agreeable to Moscow. According to Article 19, all Black Sea nations can still have their warships transit through the straits so long as these vessels are returning to their Black Sea bases of origin. This allows Russia, Ukraine, and NATO members Bulgaria and Romania to continue to use the straits to bring their warships into the Black Sea as they go back to their bases. The inability of any other NATO member state to send ships through the straits to the Black Sea until the end of hostilities in Ukraine is a win for Putin.

The Turkish president’s reported decision to prevent four Russian warships from passing through the straits to the Black Sea even before his decision to implement the Montreux Convention also appears to be another blessing in disguise for Putin. As the Turkish foreign minister stated, three of the four ships Russia wanted to send to the Black Sea were not registered to bases in the Black Sea. Had they transited to the Black Sea ahead of Erdoğan’s decision to start implementing the Montreux Convention, those three ships would have been stuck in the Black Sea until the end of the hostilities.

Russia will, nevertheless, suffer from Montreux’s restrictions if its invasion of Ukraine turns into a prolonged war. Russian warships that return to their Black Sea ports do not have the right to exit to the Mediterranean through the straits until the war ends. This will prevent Putin from bringing supplies to the Assad regime in Syria by using ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The Kremlin can continue such supply missions by using ships from its Baltic, Northern, and Pacific fleets, but as Nicholas J. Myers argued, “this would require considerably longer supply lines and likely shorter on-station times.”

Erdoğan appears to have become more cognizant of the threat posed by the increasing irredentism and belligerence of his long-time friend Putin. Yet the Turkish president has little room to take concrete action against Russia, given how much leverage Putin has built against Turkey during Erdoğan’s 20-year rule. As the Montreux Convention example also shows, he feels the need to pursue a balancing act between NATO and Russia. Meanwhile, Erdoğan hopes that unsuspecting observers in the West will fall for the spin that the purported blows to Russia represent the wayward country’s return to the NATO fold.

Aykan Erdemir is senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Twitter: @aykan_erdemir