Moscow has seemingly long wanted to have it both ways (see EDM, April 2, 23) on the Montreux Convention, which governs naval passage through the Turkish Straits (the Bosporus and the Dardanelles). On the one hand, Russia has cast itself as a supporter of this agreement when it works to its advantage but, on the other hand, ignored and worked to undermine it when the accord did not. However, because any high-level discussion of this treaty carries with it the risk of sparking a serious conflict between Moscow and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Russian government typically uses its officials in occupied Crimea to present its constantly evolving positions on the 1936 agreement. These changes reflect Moscow’s desire to keep the West off balance. And the latest such use of a Crimean official came at a September 2019 conference on Black Sea security, held by the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow.
Senator Olga Kovitili, who represents Russian-occupied Crimea in the Russian Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament), told the meeting that “turbulence in present-day political processes, the destruction of the Yalta-Potsdam model of international relations, and the imposition by the United States of the model of ‘unipolar globalization’ ” have come together to make the Black Sea a focal point of international tensions. Consequently, she said, the preservation of the Montreux Convention is essential for the future security of Russia and its neighbors (Blackseafleet-21.com, September 27). Her mention of Yalta and Potsdam underscores that her words reflect not her personal opinion but that of the Kremlin, which has long argued that the world must be governed without any revision of the results of World War II (RT, September 21, 2019; see EDM, February 26, 2015).
Furthermore, the Russian senator said, the Ukrainian and Syrian crises have only added to the importance of the Black Sea. Thus, the Montreux Convention must be preserved and followed; any “so-called revision” of that accord, let alone its denunciation, is “impermissible,” as either could lead outside players to try to project power into the region in ways that would threaten peace and stability. However, Kovitili argued, the US has been doing precisely that since at least 1996, drawing Black Sea littoral states into the transatlantic alliance and ostensibly promoting color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine with the supposedly obvious intent of expelling Russian influence from the region and replacing it with US military bases. By limiting the entrance and presence of outside (i.e., non-littoral) states to the Black Sea, the Montreux Convention can help prevent this drive by Washington, Kovitili declared.
The Russian government has long been conflicted regarding the 1936 Montreux agreement, which limits the number of foreign naval vessels that can enter the Black Sea via the Straits and dictates how long these vessels can remain there. Some in Moscow have viewed it as an important component of Russian national security, while others see it as an open invitation for Western meddling in waters Russia considers properly its own. Moreover, the critics of the Montreux Convention consider the over-80-year-old document a limit on Russia’s freedom to use the Turkish Straits to project force into the Mediterranean (see EDM, July 18). Consequently, some have urged Moscow to seek a revision of the Convention while others have cautioned that Russia would lose more than it would gain given its desire to develop better relations with Turkey (see EDM, April 2).
Last spring, Moscow appeared to have come down on the side of pushing for a revision of Montreux or even scrapping the agreement altogether. Yevgeny Satanovsky, an influential Moscow-based commentator, argued that the Montreux Convention must be scrapped and Russian control over the Straits established so that NATO ships cannot freely enter and exit the Black Sea (Rueconomics.ru, April 20). Additionally, Moscow openly flaunted the agreement’s provisions. The Ukrainian embassy in Washington called attention to one such incident in a Non-Paper that detailed how the Russian Black Sea Fleet sent a submarine through the Turkish Straits to the Mediterranean. Moscow declared that the vessel was in transit to St. Petersburg, where a Russian submarine repair facility is located (Usni.org, March 18). But that claim, the Ukrainian embassy says, was false: in fact, there is “a high probability” that the missile-armed submarine was engaged in a rotation with a Russian submarine belonging to Russia’s Mediterranean naval task force. Such an action, the embassy declares, “constitute[s] a breach” of the Montreux Convention (“Topic: A breach of the Montreux Convention by Russian Federation,” Non-Paper, Embassy of the Republic of Ukraine in Washington, DC, April 17; see EDM, April 23).
Now, just six months later, as Kovitili’s highly publicized statement shows, Moscow has again shifted its position on the convention, possibly convinced that it has more to gain vis-à-vis Ankara and the West by presenting itself as a defender of Montreux than by flouting the agreement’s provisions to show the world that Russia can and will act as it likes. However, this latest shift is unlikely to be the end of the story. Instead, Russia may reverse its position again, making such statements about Montreux an important barometer of its broader assessment of the world and Russia’s place in it.