The Istanbul Canal, Montreux convention and the military dimension
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is planning a huge project to build a 45 Km Istanbul canal between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea with the goal of taking the civilian and naval movement burden off the Bosporus. The plan was announced in 2011 but the final environmental approval was accorded in January 2020. To be built at a cost of about $9 billion (75 billion Turkish lira), the project is a source of controversy between Turkey and Russia.
The Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said that the Montreux Convention on the mode of passage of ships through the Bosphorus would not apply to the projected Istanbul Canal. At the same time, according to the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the republic, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the channel project is not aimed at Turkey’s abandonment of the Montreux convention. However, Russia is of the view that the presence or absence of an additional waterway in the form of the Istanbul canal between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara will not change the international legal regime of the convention.
103 Turkish retired admirals have written an open letter asking Turkey to strictly follow the Montreux convention and discussions on the possibility of withdrawing from it in connection with the Istanbul canal project are unacceptable.
The Montreux Convention
Signed on July 20, 1936, the Montreux Convention regarding the Regime of the Straits gives Turkey control over the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles and regulates the passage of commercial vessels and warships. There is a clause, particularly for warships which is particularly applied the two Turkish Straits and is not used anywhere else in the world’. The Convention brings serious restrictions on the passage of warships regarding their tonnage and the number of warships that can pass the straits in order to protect Turkey and the countries bordering the Black Sea. If the Montreux Convention is not applied to the Istanbul Canal, the NATO warships will easily reach the Russian waters. Another important aspect of the Montreux Convention is that naval ships not belonging to the Black Sea countries are allowed to stay in the Black Sea for no more than 21 days.
The US, NATO and the Black Sea
NATO is boosting its presence in the Black Sea to show solidarity with Ukraine. Both have conducted drills in the region and the latest one was Joint Efforts 2020. In February 2021, the US 6th Fleet reported that USS Porter and USS Donald Cook along with Turkish warships backed by two F-16 Turkish fighter jets had held joint drills in the Black Sea. The US insists that it acts within the framework of the convention that regulates the transit of naval ships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits while the drills run in the international waters. In 2019, USS Yuma Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport ship had visited the Black Sea.
The Russian Response
It is one of the main reasons that the Russians have retained control of Sevastopol, the Black Sea fleet’s base and after annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, the entire Tauric peninsula is Russian territory. Russia has connected Crimea with its mainland in 2019 through a newly built bridge across the Kerch Strait with 8 Lane provision and is no longer dependent on the ferry. The rail bridge started its operation in 2020. So the mobilisation of Russian forces is an easy proposition.
To monitor NATO and US Navy’s 6th Fleet activities, a reconnaissance ship from the Black Sea or Baltic Fleet constantly operates within the Russian Navy’s permanent Mediterranean task force.
Russia does not see NATO and the US moving into the region in the immediate furure and act contrary to the convention.
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