Invasion of Ukraine: Will Ankara close the Straits?

Dhe Turkey is under pressure. Because the Ukrainian ambassador in Ankara on Thursday asked the Turkish government in a letter that he submitted to the Foreign Ministry to close the Straits to Russian ships and to impose sanctions on Moscow. Turkey has not responded. Legally, however, Turkey could close the straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus. The Montreux Convention of 1936, which regulates shipping traffic through the two Turkish Straits, would allow this.

Whether it comes to that will be a political rather than a legal decision. The convention restored Turkey to full sovereignty over the Straits, which it had lost after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and as a result of the 1923 Lausanne Peace Treaty. The convention sets rules for the free movement of ships through the straits for merchant ships and warships alike.

A phone call just before the attack

The convention consists of 29 articles. Articles 8 to 22 of them regulate the passage of warships. In the current case, Article 21 gives Turkey the right to prevent the passage of Russian warships through the Straits. It states that if Turkey sees itself threatened by an imminent threat of war, it has the right to apply the provisions of Article 20. Article 20 states that Turkey can suspend the provisions of Articles 10 to 18 of the Convention in a war in which it is itself a party. It is entirely at the discretion of the Turkish government to allow warships to pass through. In times of war, Turkey can also block the passage of merchant ships from countries with which the country is at war.

Image: FAZ

Articles 10 to 18 regulate in great detail the basically free passage of warships in peacetime. They give the riparian states more freedom than they allow the non-riparian states. These include different lengths of time for prior mandatory notification of a passage and upper limits for the tonnage. The requirements for submarines are more restrictive, although passage through them is generally possible in peacetime. The Convention implicitly excludes the passage of aircraft carriers.

Russia last made use of the principle of free passage when six warships and a submarine passed through the Straits on February 8 and 9, 2022, allegedly to take part in a maneuver in the Black Sea. The convention stipulates a notification period of at least fifteen days for the passage of warships from NATO countries that are not neighboring countries. There is also an upper limit for the total tonnage. In the past, Turkey has strictly adhered to the provisions of the Convention so as not to provide an excuse either for the Soviet Union or, more recently, for Russia. That could prove to be an advantage for Russia in the coming weeks.

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