Moscow wants to have it both ways on the Montreux Convention, which governs naval passage through the Turkish Straits (the Bosporus and the Dardanelles), casting itself as a supporter of this agreement when it works to its advantage but at the same time ignoring and working to undermine it when the accord does not. This intentional oscillation represents President Vladimir Putin’s latest “hybrid” attempt to push Western forces out of the Black Sea, a region that Russia considers a crucial part of its “near abroad.” Yet, the strategy carries with it the potential to spark a serious conflict there between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Indeed, events and commentaries in the last couple weeks suggest that risk may be increasing (see below).
The Russian government has long been divided on the 1936 Montreux agreement limiting the number of foreign naval vessels that can enter the Black Sea via the Straits and dictating 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. Consequently, some have urged that Russia seek a revision of the Convention while others have cautioned that Moscow would lose more than it would gain given its desire to develop better relations with Turkey (see EDM, April 2).
But instead of coming down on one side or the other, it now appears that the Kremlin has decided to try to have it both ways, simultaneously presenting itself as a defender of Montreux while working to undermine both the letter and the spirit of that Convention. Four days ago (April 19), Aleksandr Grushko, a Russian deputy foreign minister, gave an interview to TASS in which he said that the Montreux Convention must be strictly observed. NATO has no reason to violate it, he continued, given that the Western alliance includes three Black Sea littoral states—Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. The appearance of naval vessels from other NATO countries, specifically those of the United States and the United Kingdom, however, are a problem because they are an indication that the West is prepared to become part of what he called Ukrainian “provocations” (TASS, April 19).
“Today,” Grushkov told TASS, “the most serious problem from the point of view of security is attempts by non-littoral countries to increase their presence there. We are firmly convinced that the Montreux Convention must be strictly observed as a serious guarantee of security. And we are carefully following a number of infrastructure projects being pursued in Romania and Bulgaria and the attempts of NATO countries to create support facilities there and to introduce additional forces.” Thus, Grushkov’s words would suggest that Moscow has no interest in revising Montreux or in violating the provisions of that convention on its own. And yet, this does not actually appear to be the case.
Not only have Moscow media and the Russian government repeatedly expressed anger and outrage at NATO vessels that have entered and left the Black Sea in full complete compliance with the Montreux Convention (Pravda.ru, April 23; Life.ru, April 21), but Russian forces have impeded their courses by, among other tactics, hacking the GPS navigation system so that some of these ships risked entering Russian exclusion zones—a violation of both the letter and even more the spirit of the 1936 convention (Dsnews.ua, April 23).
And there have been two additional serious developments over the last ten days. First of all, Yevgeny Satanovsky, an influential Moscow commentator, has 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). On the one hand, Satanovsky’s proposal resuscitates longstanding Russian interest in controlling Istanbul, something the Imperial Russian Government pursued to the very end and the exposure of which contributed to the fall of the first Provisional Government in 1917. But on the other hand, Satanovsky is clear as to what he thinks should happen—and the latter is far more likely to occur below the West’s radar.
Specifically, the Russian commentator suggests that Moscow should become a full partner in developing the Istanbul Canal, a project Ankara is now pursuing, which would allow ships to pass between the Mediterranean and the Black Seas without having to transit the Straits governed by Montreux. The construction of such a canal, Satanovsky said, would make it possible to “put a big fat cross on the Montreux Convention.” And because that is the case, Russian participation in that project is for Russia “much more important than work” on a new atomic power plant or pipeline in Turkey (Rueconomics.ru, April 20).
The other major development was an open breach of the Convention by Moscow last month. The Ukrainian embassy in Washington has specifically called attention to this incident in a Non-Paper it provided to The Jamestown Foundation. On March 14, the Russian Black Sea Fleet sent a submarine through the Turkish Straits to the Mediterranean, declaring 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 alleges, was false: In fact, there is “a high probability” that the missile-armed submarine was engaged in a rotation with a Russian submarine in Moscow’s Mediterranean naval task force (“Topic: A breach of the Montreux Convention by Russian Federation,” Non-Paper, Embassy of the Republic of Ukraine in Washington, DC, April 17).
Such an action “constitute[s] a breach” of the Montreux Convention, which specifies, in Articles 10 and 12, that “submarines belonging to Black Sea countries shall also be entitled to pass through the Straits (with a later return) to be repaired in dockyards outside the Black Sea. The [Russian] support facility at Tartus, Syria, is not [such] a dockyard” (“Topic: A breach of the Montreux Convention by Russian Federation,” April 17). In short, Moscow is violating the very Convention it declares to be supporting, thereby challenging both NATO and international law. The West will need to more carefully scrutinize Moscow’s actions as well as its words.