The Black Sea and Global Politics Then and Now

Russia is the only power on the Black Sea standing up against the NATO countries’ armed forces. In addition to US military bases in Romania and Bulgaria, Russia is also worried about the ambiguous policies of Turkey, which has the greatest military capabilities in the Black Sea.

Russia has been drawn to the Black Sea since time immemorial and has done much to expand its influence in the adjacent regions of the Caucasus and the Balkans. Under Peter the Great, Russia entered a period of open confrontation with Persia and Turkey in the Caucasus. Following several wars with the Ottoman Empire, Russia strengthened its positions in the Balkans and on the Black Sea. Russian-Turkish relations greatly improved after the First World War of 1914-1918, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Soviet Union, in part thanks to the positive role played by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of Turkey (1923-1938). 

The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, which was signed in July 1936 through the concerted efforts of the Soviet Union, Turkey and Romania, regulated the transit of ships of all countries and the freedom of passage and navigation of all merchant vessels through the straits of Bosphorus and Dardanelles in peacetime and wartime. The transit of warships of non-Black Sea states was subject to restrictions on type and tonnage. No more than nine warships of non-Black Sea powers with a total aggregate tonnage of no more than 30,000 tons may pass through the Straits at any one time, and they are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no longer than 21 days.

The Montreux Convention remains in force to this day and can be extended unless a signatory state declares its intention to withdraw from the agreement two years prior to its expiry. Turkey was declared the keeper of the convention because the Straits are located on its territory.

The other signatories are the UK, France, Greece, Italy, and the then Yugoslavia. However, the United States refused to sign the convention, which has created legal problems for the presence of US warships in the Black Sea.

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Over the past 30 years, Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) has greatly strengthened its positions in the Black Sea region. After WWII, the overwhelming majority of the coastal states were Soviet republics and Soviet bloc countries. Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952, was the only exception, but Russia was gradually improving relations with Ankara. Positive changes in Russia-Turkey relations were promoted by a visit of President Turgut Özal, who arrived in Russia at the invitation of Mikhail Gorbachev on March 11, 1991, several days before the 70th anniversary of the first Soviet-Turkish friendship treaty, signed on March 16, 1921.

In addition to discussing major international issues of interest to both countries, the Turkish and Soviet leaders also signed agreements on trade and economic cooperation. One of them provided for increasing a Turkish loan to Russia to $400 million and for doubling the delivery of Russian gas to Turkey, to 10 billion cubic meters. Economic and tourism ties, as well as the growing business of Turkish construction companies in Russia, eventually developed into the main spheres of bilateral cooperation. 

The sides also agreed to support the idea of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organization, which 11 countries of the region created in June 1992 (Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine). Serbia joined the BSEC in 2004.

Still, relations between Russia and Turkey as the main “guardians” of the Black Sea straits were sometimes strained, though most of these incidents were settled through negotiations. In January 1994, Turkey adopted the Maritime Traffic Regulations for the Turkish Straits and the Marmara Region, without any consultations with the signatory states of the Montreux Convention, primarily Russia. The Regulations entered into force on July 1, 1994, introducing new restrictions on the passage of vessels through the Straits depending on their cargo and tonnage, up to denying them passage. Some of the Regulations’ provisions turned out to be very useful. However, Albert Chernyshev, then Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia and former Ambassador to Turkey, described the manner in which Turkey introduced these changes as “openly defiant.” 

The reasons behind these “misunderstandings” lie in the uneven nature of Russia-Turkey relations. On the one hand, all official Turkish documents describe Russia as a global power, though not as the sum total of its economic, military and foreign policy capacities, but because Russia has nuclear weapons and is a member of the UN Security Council. 

On the other hand, Turkish authorities seized every opportunity to uphold its status as the main “guardian” of not just the Straits, but also the Black Sea area on the coast of which two other NATO countries – Romania and Bulgaria – are located. In 2003, a Turkish patrol boat attempted to prevent the passage of a large Russian landing ship, Tsezar Kunikov, through the Straits. An accident was averted only by the appearance of Russian Marines on the deck. 

Russia-Turkey relations were placed on ice after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber over Syria on November 25, 2015. Turkey sought to further complicate the situation by hindering the passage of Russian warships through the Straits. Tensions came to a head when Turkey close the Bosphorus to Russian oil and grain tankers after the attempted military coup on July 15-16, 2016, when the rebels blocked the bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul. 

The Turkish military staged coups in 1961, 1971 and 1980. They hanged Prime Minister Adnan Menderes in 1961. Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel was forced to resign in 1980 and was later put on trial. The military usually demanded an end to “anarchy” and a return to the reforms of the first president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. They also spoke against the Islamization of Turkey and increasing corruption among top Turkish politicians.

Internal instability and the absence of normal businesslike relations between the main Black Sea countries (Russia and Turkey) ultimately helped the United States and NATO countries strengthen their positions in the Black Sea region.

In late 2005, NATO member countries Bulgaria and Romania signed agreements on the establishment of US military bases on the Black Sea coast. The strategic balance was further disrupted by the 2010 decision to deploy elements of the US ballistic missile defense system in Romania. US-Russian relations became even more complicated in 2014-2016, after Crimea and Sevastopol (Russia’s naval base on the Black Sea) reunited with Russia, and over the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the hostilities in Syria.

In July 2016, the NATO Council discussed the Romanian initiative to establish a multinational framework brigade of the Allied Black Sea countries. The idea stalled due to Bulgaria’s objection, and a Romanian-Turkish force can hardly be described as a multinational brigade. However, the Black Sea countries continued working in this direction on a multilateral and bilateral basis.

In May 2016, Ukraine and Turkey signed an implementation plan on military cooperation until 2020. The Turkish defense minister said they discussed issues of military technology, plans for joint military exercises, and joint measures to strengthen security in the Black Sea region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an address to Balkan military chiefs that he had told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg the following: “You are absent from the Black Sea. The Black Sea has almost become a Russian lake. If we don’t act now, history will not forgive us.”

The Western media contrasted this statement with what the Turkish president said in St. Petersburg in August 2016, after the failed military coup in Ankara, where Erdogan thanked his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin for help.

Despite the above, it is a fact that Russia is the only power on the Black Sea standing up against the NATO countries’ armed forces. In addition to US military bases in Romania and Bulgaria, Russia is also worried about the ambiguous policies of Turkey, which has the greatest military capabilities on the Black Sea. In particular, Turkey has more submarines (14, according to public information) than all the other Black Sea countries combined. 

Admiral Alexander Vitko, commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, said that Russia had launched large-scale modernization of the fleet after Crimea and Sevastopol rejoined Russia. Forty new vessels were put on combat duty in 2015, including three diesel-electric submarines and two missile boats, and a squadron of Su-30SM multirole fighter aircraft was created.

In August 2016, Russia launched simultaneous naval drills in the Mediterranean and Caspian seas, in which warships from the Black Sea Fleet are involved. Some of the vessels are armed with the Kalibr-NK cruise missile systems, which have been used against terrorists in Syria. The aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which has long-range aircraft and cruise missiles, will join the drills in September.

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In conclusion, it should be noted that the situation in the Black Sea remains relatively stable, despite problems and even explosive situations in the adjacent regions, largely because the Black Sea countries have complied with the Montreux Convention, which was signed 80 years ago. I don’t agree with those who describe the Black Sea as a powder keg. The term was used to describe the situation in the Balkans between the two world wars, both because of the never-ending conflicts between the regional small countries, and also because of the aggressive actions taken against them by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

As for the situation in the Greater Black Sea region, which comprises the western and eastern Balkans, South Caucasus, the southern regions of Russia and Ukraine, Crimea and Turkey, it has been marred by unresolved conflicts. Much has been done to settle them by the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and its related bodies such as the Parliamentary Assembly of the BSEC (PABSEC), the International Center for Black Sea Studies (ICBSS), and the BSEC Business Council (BSEC BC). Importantly, PABSEC is an open venue where countries that do not maintain diplomatic relations with each other can discuss their problems and sometimes find intermediary solutions within the scope of their authority.

But the main factor is the strengthening of Russia’s position in the Black Sea area, the build-up of its Black Sea Fleet, and the deepening of its ties with the countries of the Greater Black Sea region.

Dr. Alla Yazkova is Professor and Head of the Department of Black Sea and Mediterranean Studies, Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.