After heavily bombing major cities in Ukraine following their initial advance into Ukrainian territory, the Russian forces have canceled their bid to send its four warships through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits into the Black Sea upon Turkey’s request.

This is a significant action from Ankara as it is an ally of both the United States and Russia, which is why it has been cautious in its diplomatic moves in the recent week following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It can be remembered that a number of Russian warships navigated through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits earlier in February, with Ropucha-class tank landing ships RTS Georgy Pobedonosets (016), RTS Olenegorsky Gornyak (012), and the Ivan Gren-class RTS Pyotr Morgunov entering the straits. Three amphibious warships soon followed with the RFS Minsk (127), RFS Korolev (130), RFS Kaliningrad (102), and a Kilo-class diesel-electric attack boat RTS Rostov-na-Donu (B-237) joining the fleet in Russian naval base Sevastopol in Crimea.

Turkey, a NATO member, is walking a metaphorical tightrope between its allies in the West and Russia. It is a country that has historically enjoyed good diplomatic relations between both Russia and Ukraine, which has led it to be in the middle of a war between the two countries.

Ankara has been careful of its diplomatic moves as not to alienate itself from both countries as Turkey is supplied by Russian gas, which accounts for 45% of Turkish imports, with Russians also playing a vital portion of Turkey’s tourism revenue as 20% of Turkey’s tourists are Russians. Furthermore, it can also be remembered that Turkey bought S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Moscow in 2017, amounting to $2.5 billion.

No Sanctions From Turkey

It can be remembered that Turkey has stayed silent on the fiscal and economic sanctions brought by the United States and the West, sanctions which have led the Russian ruble to fall in value and oil prices to shoot up amidst the conflict.

According to Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, Ankara does not intend to follow suit with any of the sanctions that would harm their own country in the process. He pointed out that they can be a bridge to peace as they are able to hold talks with Russia.

“We need to act based on our country’s priorities. There should be a party capable of holding talks with Russia. Who will talk with Russia if all the bridges are burned down? We don’t plan to impose sanctions so that we keep this channel open,” the Turkish spokesperson said. He also openly admitted that it was not sanctioning Russia because they “…maintain close relations [with Russia] in areas such as tourism, natural gas supplies, and agriculture.”

No Passage Through The Straits For Russia Either

In an effort to balance out their diplomatic relations with both parties, Turkey has closed the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits under its powers as mandated by the international Montreux Convention, where Turkey holds control over the passage of vessels between their straits as it is an access point for the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

The 1936 pact guarantees the complete freedom of passage for all civilian vessels during peacetime and can restrict the passage of vessels or navies not belonging to Black Sea states. When the country is threatened or engaged in war, it can choose to close the straits to foreign warships and refuse merchant ships from entering and passing through. Furthermore, the passage is limited to 9 warships at a time with no ship above 10,000 tonnes to pass. No limit on tonnage is imposed on Black Sea states.

Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu with a photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Mevlut Cavusoglu Official Twitter Account). Source: https://twitter.com/MevlutCavusoglu/status/1494988299278200834
Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu with a photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Mevlut Cavusoglu (@MevlutCavusoglu) Official Twitter Account)

This power makes Turkey a key player in a said military conflict between Russia and Ukraine as the straits connect the Aegean to Marmara and the Black Sea. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that the decision to close the straits was made before the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine. It also asked Russia not to send its ships through the straits prior to Turkey considering the conflict a “war.” Calling the conflict a “war” enables Turkey to have power over which navies and vessels can pass through their straits.

“Russia has said four of its ships would cross the straits on Feb 27-28, three of which are not registered to bases in the Black Sea,” said Cavusoglu. These four ships were reportedly two destroyers, a frigate, and an intelligence vessel. “We told Russia not to send these ships, and Russia said the vessels would not cross the straits.” This means Russia cannot use the straits to send destroyers to Ukraine’s Black Sea Coast. While Turkey did block these Russian ships from passing through, the pact has a clause exempting ships returning to their registered base.

Cavusoglu reiterated that no country should be offended by their decision as they are merely just implementing what has been enshrined in the Montreux Convention. “…the Montreux Convention is valid today, yesterday and tomorrow, so we will implement it,” he said.

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Turkey and its carefully crafted and calculated moves to appease both sides of the conflict seems to be working for now. Earlier, Cavusoglu also warned all countries to refrain from sending warships to the straits, whether a Black Sea country or not.

“When Turkey is not a belligerent in the conflict, it has the authority to restrict the passage of the warring states’ warships across the straits. If the warship is returning to its base in the Black Sea, the passage is not closed. We adhere to the Montreux rules. All governments, riparian and non-riparian, were warned not to send warships across the straits,” he said. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan echoed the statements of Cavusoglu and reiterated that honoring the Montreux rules was important to avoid further escalation in the region.

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