The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits: A Turkish Perspective

2014-04-24 By Cem Devrim Yaylalı

The Montreux Convention regarding the regime of the Turkish Straits was signed on 20 July 1936 in Montreux. With this convention, the Republic of Turkey managed to end the issue of Straits, which was resolved temporarily with the Treaty of Lausanne, so as to protect its own safety and interests.

Considering the historical developments, Turkey had to allow the Straits as a gun-free zone to be administered by the Straits Commission under the Treaty of Lausanne. This situation which threatened Turkey’s absolute sovereignty and the security over its territory had to be corrected due to the increasing political tensions in Europe in the late 1930s. The Montreux Convention was the result of the political and diplomatic efforts that were made in this direction.

Through this convention that was signed by Australia, Bulgaria, Great Britain, Japan, France, Romania, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, Turkey’s limited rights were given back. Turkey gained sovereignty over the Straits Zone. The USA was also invited to the conference that was held before the convention. However, the Washington Government preferred not to participate and thus couldn’t become a signatory.

Northwestern Turkey is divided by a complex waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea. The channel passing between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara is named the Istanbul Bogazi, more commonly called the Bosporus. Istanbul is positioned at the south end of the Bosporus. The Sea of Marmara is connected to the Aegean Sea by a channel called the Canakkale Bogazi, also known as the Dardanelles. The Turkish Straits, comprising the Strait of Canakkale, the Strait of Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara and, are unique in many respects. The very narrow and winding shape of the strait is more a kin to that of the river. It is an established fact that the Turkish Straits are one of the most hazardous, crowded, difficult and potentially dangerous, waterways in the world for marines. All the dangers and obstacles characteristic of narrow waterways are present and acute in this critical sea lane.

Northwestern Turkey is divided by a complex waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea. The very narrow and winding shape of the strait is more akin to that of a river. The Turkish Straits are one of the most hazardous, crowded, difficult and potentially dangerous, waterways in the world for mariners.

The Montreux Convention guarantees free passage of civilian merchant ships without any restriction through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus in peacetime. Therefore, the adoption of the Turkish Straits Vessel Traffic Services System, which was put into practice by Turkey when the number and tonnages of vessels passing through the straits increased dramatically, became possible after serious diplomatic negotiations between the signatories of the Montreux Convention.

Six out of 29 articles of the Montreux Convention were related to the civilian merchant ships while 16 of them were related to the war ships and aircrafts. Provisions regarding the passing of war ships through the Straits vary depending on whether these ships belong to a country with or without a shore on the Black Sea. Also, these provisions vary depending on whether Turkey is belligerent or sees itself under a close war threat.

The countries with a shore on the Black Sea have the right to transit their war ships and submarines through the Straits without any tonnage restriction provided that Turkey is notified eight days prior to the transit passage through diplomatic channels.

Ships that have a greater tonnage than 15.000 tons may pass through the Straits one by one and escorted by not more than two destroyers. The submarines are required to navigate on the surface and singly when passing through the Straits.

The definition of “ton” in the Montreux Convention, unless otherwise specified, refers to the long ton, which is equal to 1016 kg (2240 pounds) instead of the metric ton that is equal to 1000 kg. Moreover, the tonnage calculation of a war ship is made by taking into account the well-constructed and ready-to-sail ship’s fuel, all machineries, weapons and ammunition, its equipment, all its crew and their provisions and fresh water as well as all the tools and equipment that will be carried during a war.

Entry into the Black Sea

There are some restrictions in terms of type, number and tonnage for the transit through the Straits of war ships that belong to the countries without a shore on the Black Sea. These countries are required to notify Turkey eight days, but preferably 15 days, prior to the transit through diplomatic channels.

The Bosphorus (red) and the Dardanelles (yellow) are known collectively as the Turkish Straits. Credit: Wikepedia

The Bosphorus (red) and the Dardanelles (yellow) are known collectively as the Turkish Straits. Credit: Wikepedia

The countries without a shore on the Black Sea have the right to transit a naval force, which is not prohibited by the convention and whose total tonnage does not exceed 15.000 tons, from the Straits to the Black Sea. Even if the total tonnage does not exceed 15.000 tons, the number of ships cannot be more than nine.

The countries without a shore on the Black Sea cannot keep their war ships more than 21 days in the Black Sea. The total tonnage of war ships belonging to a country without a shore on the Black Sea cannot exceed 30.000 tons while the tonnage of war ships that can be kept by all of the countries without a shore on the Black Sea at the same time cannot exceed 45.000 tons.

Due to its date of signing, the Montreux Convention does not have a clear statement with regard to nuclear-powered vessels.

In fact, in the convention there is not a statement with regard to the engine types of the ships that will pass through the Straits. In theory, the transit of a nuclear-powered ship through the Straits is not restricted.

However, today the nuclear-powered war ships are either the submarines or aircraft carriers with huge tonnages. The transit of a submarine or an aircraft carrier belonging to a country without a shore on the Black Sea is not possible. Therefore, a nuclear-powered war ship has not passed through the Straits officially so far.

Straits during a War or Crisis

In the event that one of the countries with a shore on the Black Sea enters into a war, the rules of the Montreux Convention that are applicable during peacetime change naturally. If Turkey is neutral in the war, the transit of war ships belonging to the belligerent countries is prohibited.

The peacetime rules apply for the war ships belonging to other countries. The only exception of this is that if the war ships belonging to belligerent countries with or without a shore on the Black Sea have already left the ports that they are affiliated to before the war, they have the right to transit in order to return to their ports.

In the event that Turkey is a party to the war, the transit of war ships belonging to foreign countries through the Straits is left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish Government.

Similarly, if Turkey considers itself to be threatened with imminent danger of war, the transit of war ships belonging to foreign countries through the Straits is left to the discretion of the Turkish Government.

By means of this authority, Turkey can prohibit the transit of war ships belonging to the countries that cause Turkey to consider itself to be threatened with danger of war while it can allow the transit of war ships belonging to countries that do not cause such situation.

Montreux on a Global Scale

With the Montreux Convention regarding the regime of the straits, which we have tried to summarize above, the number, type and size of the war ships that can reach the Black Sea have been restricted. These restrictions increase the security of the countries with a shore on the Black Sea. However, the same restrictions prevent the desire of countries with powerful naval forces to be present and cruise in all seas all around the world.

Turkey has been trying to implement the Montreux Convention with great precision since 1936. Therefore, occasionally Turkey is exposed to criticism from countries both with and without a shore on the Black Sea.

The first big test of the Montreux Convention was, no doubt, the Second World War.

Turkey closed the Straits to the war ships of the belligerent countries during this war in which Turkey remained neutral. This situation served to the purpose of the Soviet Union since the transit of German submarines and war ships through the Straits was prevented. Axis countries couldn’t bring new war ships to the Black Sea except for those that were already in the Black Sea before the war. Submarines were transferred in pieces by land or through the Danube River so that they could be assembled in Romania.

The Truxtun passing through the straits. Credit Photo: C4Defence

The USS Truxtun passing through the straits. Credit Photo: C4Defence

However, in the following process Moscow’s perspective changed. The main reason of this change was the fact that the military aid convoys coming from its allies, the UK and the USA, could not pass through the Straits.

During the Cold War, Turkey was exposed to criticism of the Soviet Union and the NATO allies from time to time due to its way of implementation of the Montreux Convention.

The fact that in 1976 Turkey allowed the transit of Kiev, which was launched in the Nikolayev Shipbuilding in the Black Sea in 1972, through the Straits caused the protests among the NATO allies, including the USA.  Kiev was the first aircraft carrier constructed completely by the Soviet Union according to the Westerners. However, having been quite aware of the fact that violating the Montreux Convention would not be good for its own benefit, the USSR classified the Kiev as a heavy anti-submarine cruiser instead of an aircraft carrier.

Moscow couldn’t solve the problem with a simple change of name.

In the Montreux Convention, the aircraft carriers were defined as surface war ships, regardless of their tonnage, constructed mainly to carry aircrafts and enable the operation of these aircrafts in the sea or designed for this purpose. If a war ship was not designed or arranged with the purpose of carrying aircrafts and enabling them to operate in the sea, having a suitable deck for the aircraft’s take-off and landing was not enough for its inclusion in the aircraft carrier class.

In Kiev and the ships that came after her in this class, there were long-range anti-ship and air defense missiles as well as anti-submarine warfare rockets. Thus, the Soviet Union was able to classify these ships as a heavy anti-submarine cruiser. Today, having been taken out service by Russia, the Kiev, Minsk, Novorossiysk and Baku that was constructed afterwards passed frequently through the Straits while on duty.

A similar crisis happened in 1991 when the RFNS Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov, which still serves in the Russian Army, passed through the Straits. Although this ship looked like a classical aircraft carrier in terms of its structure, the Soviet Union classified it as a heavy cruiser due to some weapon systems deployed on the ship. Some NATO member countries put serious pressure on Turkey not to allow this ship to pass through the Straits, but they didn’t succeed in this effort. Unlike Kiev-class ships, the RFNS Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov didn’t pass through the Straits again after leaving the Black Sea in 1991.

The second ship belonging to this class was launched in 1988 with the name of Varyag, but no studies had been carried out on this ship for many years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This ship, as the flagship and first aircraft carrier of the Chinese Navy, passed through the Straits in 2001 with the name of Liaoning. Since its construction was not completed at that time, it wasn’t categorized as a ship and thus its transit wasn’t subject to the provisions of the Montreux Convention.

Montreux in the New World

After the terrorist attacks happened on 11 September 2001, the U.S. Government requested for help from the NATO countries within the scope of Article 5 of NATO Treaty. According to this article, an armed attack against a NATO country is considered as an attack against all of the NATO countries.

In this context, on 26 October 2001 the Operation Active Endeavour (OAE) that was the first anti-terror operation of NATO was launched. The operation that began with the patrols of the war ships belonging to NATO countries in the Eastern Mediterranean was later on expanded so as to search the suspicious ships and their loads.

Upon the success of the OAE in the Eastern Mediterranean, the operation was expanded to whole Mediterranean area in March 2004. On the same date, the Turkish Naval Forces launched the Operation Black Sea Harmony (OBSH).

The purpose of the operation, in which surface ships, submarines and aircrafts belonging to the Turkish Naval Forces were used at first, was to ensure the security in the Black Sea, create situational awareness and control the suspicious ships.

Aerial view of the Bosphorus from north (bottom) to south (top). Credit: Wikepedia

Aerial view of the Bosphorus from north (bottom) to south (top). Credit: Wikepedia

The OBSH actually had the same purpose with the OAE. The recognized maritime picture obtained within the scope of the operation, which is still ongoing, is shared with the NATO authorities and headquarters.

The Turkish Naval Forces invited all littoral countries in the Black Sea to participate in the operation that was launched with its own initiative, and Romania, Russia and Ukraine responded positively to this invitation.

The most important effect of the OBSH was that all the pressure exerted to modify the Montreux Convention and expand the OAE coming from the NATO countries without a shore on the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea could be resisted.

If the Turkish Naval Forces hadn’t launched the OBSH and made it accepted by other NATO countries, the OAE that was launched by the joint efforts of all NATO countries would have expanded to include the Black Sea. Therefore, they could have been in this sea and the war ships belonging to NATO countries without a shore on the Black Sea would have made it impossible to implement the Montreux Convention.

The Montreux Convention became a current issue after the Russia-Georgia War in 2008. Turkey didn’t allow the transit of the 69.552-ton hospital ship named USNS Comfort with the bow number of T-AH-20 that was desired to be sent to Georgia due to the Article of the Montreux Convention that read as: “In the event that one or more countries without a shore on the Black Sea desire to send naval forces into the Black Sea, for a humanitarian purpose, the said forces cannot exceed 8.000 tons.”

The U.S government did not welcome this development, which was neo-conservative during that period. Many American war ships that were carrying aid for Georgia had to shuttle back and forth between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea due to the restrictions of the Montreux Convention.

Another crisis broke out during the missile shield program which was established by NATO in order to protect Europe against ballistic missiles originating from the Middle East. Some of the Ticonderoga-class and Arleigh Burke-class ships in the U.S. Navy were fitted with the capability of ballistic missile prevention.

The Black Sea provides the most convenient location to these ships for hitting the enemy ballistic missiles outside the atmosphere.

Washington’s desire to deploy these ships, which represented the floating team of its missile shield program in the Black Sea, brought great discussions together.

However, the articles of the Montreux Convention that restrict the tonnage and duration of the ships passing through the Straits made it impossible for the American war ships to be deployed in the Black Sea within the framework of the missile shield program of NATO.

And 2014 Crimea

The presence of the foreign war ships passing through the Straits during recent Crimean events brought the Montreux Convention to the attention of the public once again.

When the Montreux Convention was signed, its duration was determined as 20 years. However, the freedom to pass through the Straits is unlimited. Termination of the convention can be only brought to the agenda by one of the signatory countries.

The USA, which will be able to bring its war ships for a time period depending on its own will with the repeal of the Montreux Convention cannot directly request the termination of the convention since it is not a party to the convention.

The countries with a shore on the Black Sea that have acquired rights by signing the convention prefer the continuation of the convention in consideration of their national security.

The fact that the convention hasn’t been terminated as described in the convention at the end of the 20 year-period and that this issue has never been raised until today shows that the Montreux Convention still has an important role for the signatory countries.

This article first appeared in our partner C4Defence in their March issue and is reprinted with their permission. 

Editor’s Note: Clearly a key question is the impact on Turkey of Russian naval and air power modernization in the region. 

With a likely upsurge in use of the Black Sea by a modernized Russian navy operating from an expanded infrastructure in a reconstituted Russia, how will Turkey respond?

For a look at the challenges of operating militarily in such a region see the following:

http://www.sldinfo.com/meeting-the-challenges-of-the-beaten-zone-at-sea-shaping-a-way-ahead/

 

 

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