Last month’s confrontation between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia has cast a media spotlight on a previously obscure 72-year-old treaty, earlier the purview of historians and specialists, the Montreux Convention. On August 27 Russian Deputy Chief of General Staff Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn said that NATO and U.S. warships, ostensibly in the Black Sea to participate in joint exercises and deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia, could not remain there longer than the 21 days stipulated under the Convention (Interfax, August 27).
The agreement, which grants Turkey sovereignty over the Bosporus and Dardanelles channels connecting the Mediterranean and Black Seas, has been decried in Washington as it has been lauded in Moscow. Washington, eager to send aid to Georgia, was suddenly confronted by the convention’s tonnage restrictions, while Moscow complained about Washington’s duplicity in attempting to deliver humanitarian aid on naval warships. While Russia insisted on the punctilious observation of the terms of the convention, it obviously chafed Washington; but the convention was the result of centuries of inconclusive military confrontation between Russia and Turkey, and represents a fragile truce that has endured to the present day, as both powers tacitly agreed to proscribe their squabbles to regional maritime confrontation rather than opening their joint waters to outside powers.
The 1936 agreement was not only the product of more than two centuries of conflict between the Ottoman and Russian empires, which fought 11 wars with each other, but when signed represented a triumph of diplomacy over waterways that had been disputed since Homer composed his Iliad and Odyssey about the titanic struggle in the Dardanelles between Greece and Troy 29 centuries ago.
Montreux was forged in the fires of the aftermath of World War One. When the conflict was incipient, Germany craftily sent the battle cruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau into the Dardanelles, which helped convince the Ottoman empire to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers. An attempt by British and French warships to enter the channel in March 1915 and force Constantinople to capitulate was unsuccessful and was followed by the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. The end of the war saw the dissolution of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires, with British warships occupying the Straits and Constantinople, later entering the Black Sea to assist White forces fighting in the civil war that followed the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in Russia in 1917.
The 1930s saw the Turkish republic and the USSR warily eyeing each other across the Black Sea but both with recent memories of foreign warships plying is waters. Both had an interest in keeping the Black Sea under the influence of regional powers with their rough “balance of power” parity rather than permitting the more powerful Mediterranean French, Italian, and British navies free access. As the Soviet Black Sea Fleet and Turkish navies at the time were relatively insignificant, the Montreux convention was accordingly largely ignored by the world’s major maritime powers.
For Turkey, Montreux was a diplomatic triumph. A peninsula bounded by the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Black Seas, Turkey’s 5,177 miles of coastline is three times longer than the country’s 1,598 miles of land frontiers; and Montreux removed the Turkish Straits and its Black Sea coastline from all but fellow Black Sea powers’ navies.
Under terms of the Montreux Convention, Turkish sovereignty is recognized over the channel, but while the agreement guarantees merchantmen unhindered passage, the passage of warships of non-Black Sea nations is tightly regulated. Since the 1991 collapse of the USSR, the convention has proved a mixed blessing, as the Bosporus and Dardanelles have become a tanker turnpike; and under the terms of Montreux, Turkey cannot even collect toll or insist that merchantmen use pilots to navigate the sinuous channel. The Turkish Straits now carry 50,000 vessels annually, a number that includes nearly 5,000 tankers, making the passage the world’s second busiest maritime strait after the Straits of Malacca and the only one that bisects a major city, Istanbul. In 2006 10,154 tankers transited the channel.
Tanker passage has benefited the West, but when the U.S. wanted to send humanitarian aid to Georgia through the Straits, it found itself stymied by Montreux’s restrictions on the passage of foreign warships through the Turkish Straits. Montreux limits non-riverain Black Sea forces to a maximum of 45,000 tons of naval vessels, with no single warship exceeding 30,000 tons and even that could only remain in the Black Sea for 21 days. Washington had originally intended to send two U.S. Navy hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, both converted oil tankers displacing 69,360 tons apiece; but Ankara refused, leading to displeasure in Washington. In late August NATO did score a minor victory, as four ships belonging to the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1–Spain’s SPS Almirante Don Juan de Borbon, Germany’s FGS Luebeck, Poland’s ORP General Kazimierz Pulaski, and the United States’ USS Taylor–passed through the straits to participate in a NATO exercise with fellow members Bulgaria and Romania in an exercise that long predated the outbreak of hostilities in South Ossetia.
Washington finally got its chance to fly the flag in the Black Sea when, on August 22, the USS McFaul (8,915 tons) guided-missile destroyer loaded with humanitarian aid passed the Bosporus headed for Georgia with supplies such as blankets, hygiene kits, and baby food, to be followed two days later by the USCGC Dallas (3,250 tons) cutter passing the Dardanelles; they were eventually joined by the 18,400-ton USS Mount Whitney (UPI, August 27). On September 1 the USNS Pathfinder survey vessel entered the Black Sea, replacing the USS Dallas, which passed through the Dardanelles into the Mediterranean (Zaman, September 2)
Turkey’s policy has been criticized in the Turkish press, with one newspaper stating that the Foreign Ministry had miscalculated foreign warship tonnage (Cumhuriyet, August 31). In response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement the same day stating that the report was incorrect (Anadolu Ajansi, September 1).
As the dust settles over the Russian-Georgian confrontation over South Ossetia, the question of the current relevancy of the Montreux Convention remains. Under the terms of the NATO charter’s Article Five, an attack on one member is to be responded to by all; and the Black Sea is now rimmed by NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, with Ukraine and Georgia waiting in the wings. For the moment, Montreux’s restrictions have prevented a regional dispute from being influenced by non-Black Sea powers.
Whatever the merits and responsibilities of the recent Russian-Georgian confrontation, Montreux effectively interposed a firewall on the introduction of foreign maritime power projection into a tense situation, allowing diplomacy to proceed. For Ankara, perhaps the greatest merit of Montreux was to lower temperatures that might have led it into its 12th military confrontation with Moscow. As for the United States and its NATO allies, Montreux does not preclude sending humanitarian aid to Georgia; it only limits the type and tonnage of the warships purveying the relief. In an area of massive airlift capabilities, it is less a hardship than it was in 1936, when the United States was so uninterested in the negotiations that produced the convention that it did not even send an observer.