Ukraine Crisis Reignites Black Sea Tension

Central Eurasia
Middle East and North Africa

The crisis in Ukraine has reopened a discussion of the military status of the Black Sea, where the United States has long sought to gain greater naval access and Russia has been wary of the U.S.'s ambitions.


The Black Sea is reachable only through the Bosphorus Straits in Turkey, and entry into the sea is regulated by the 1936 Montreux Convention. The convention restricts the entrance of military ships by states that don't border the sea (i.e. Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, Romania, and Bulgaria); warships from non-Black Sea countries must be under 15,000 tons and must not stay in the sea longer than 21 days.


The U.S. Navy has sent a number of ships to the Black Sea this year in response first to the Sochi Olympics and then the Crimea crisis. One of them, the USS Taylor, ran aground and was forced to dock for repairs in Samsun, Turkey. As a result it stayed longer than 21 days, for which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publicly criticized the U.S. and Turkey (which is in charge of enforcing the Montreux Convention). “We have noticed that US warships have extended their deployment beyond the set terms a couple of times lately, and at times they did not always comply with the regulations that are set within the Montreux Convention,” Lavrov said. “We pointed this out both to the U.S. and of course to Turkey, which is in control of the [Bosphorus] Strait [and the Dardanelles]. Our position is that all the paragraphs of the convention ought to be strictly adhered to. We will monitor it.”


While Lavrov failed to mention the fact that the U.S. violation of Montreux was because the USS Taylor was under repairs, it's true that the U.S. has long hoped to gain more access to the Black Sea. While it hasn't given any evidence that it intends to try to overturn Montreux, the U.S. has expressed the desire to gain as much presence as possible within the framework of the agreement. In 2006, for example, Kurt Volker, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, said the U.S. wanted to expand a Mediterranean Sea naval cooperation and NATO patrol program, Operation Active Endeavor, into the Black Sea. “The countries that border the Black Sea have different views on this, from more enthusiastic to less enthusiastic,” he acknowledged. “We don't want to sort of be pushing NATO in against the wishes of any NATO allies, particularly Turkey, so we are talking to countries about how and whether we can do this. We would certainly be in favor.”


Those sorts of statements raised alarm not just in Russia, but in Turkey, which has closely treasured its role as the main Western guarantor of security in the Black Sea. “One of the main obstacles in the way of the U.S. ambition to be more active in the Black Sea region are the Montreux provisions,” wrote Sinan Ogan, chairman of the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis. “Ankara is concerned that the U.S. initiative will lead to the reopening of the debates pertaining to the Montreux Convention.”


Debate about Montreux arose again in 2008 during the war between Georgia and Russia, when the U.S. sent warships carrying humanitarian aid to Georgia. “Despite misgivings, Turkey has approved all our ship transit requests and has rebuffed Moscow's complaints it was bending Montreux to suit us,” the U.S. embassy in Ankara wrote in a cable later that year. “Since Georgia, Turkish authorities have not reprised their complaints about U.S. aims in the Black Sea, but they do not want problems [with Russia].”


And in a 2009 cable, the U.S. embassy described Turkey as wanting to manage Black Sea security through its own mechanisms, involving only Black Sea littoral countries:


Since Russia's actions in Georgia in August 2008, however, other littoral states perceive a growing threat to regional security; Turkey is concerned, but not to the extent that others are. Turkey's approach to Russia has been consistent: It seeks to remain engaged in discussion with Russia at every available forum. In contrast, the approach of other littoral states has tended more toward seeking support from each other and from outside actors, including the U.S. The immediate problems we thus have include efforts by NATO and particularly EUCOM to become more involved in the Black Sea, Turkey's push for ever more institutionalization of Turkish-led Black Sea states-only organizations and our various friends among the Black Sea states (particularly Georgia and Romania) resisting Turkish leadership as too soft on Russia and hard on U.S. presence.


Those debates likely will be renewed now, even more sharply. Turkey and Russia have traditionally wanted to see Montreux maintained, but Russia may be changing its views as a result of its newfound confidence, wrote Fatih Ozbey, an analyst at Turkey's Caspian Strategy Institute. “One of the most strongly agreed item[s] in the relations between Turkey and Russia is the need to protect the Black Sea from turning into a new area of struggle for global powers,” he wrote. Ozbey continued:


Russia prefers to achieve its interests with bilateral or multilateral relations when it feels weak, and it prefers unilateral policies when it feels strong.... Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its Ukraine policy have changed not only the balances but also the discussions in the Black Sea. Russia, in a sense, announced its dominance in the Black Sea with the Crimea move.


It's far from clear what may happen with Black Sea security in the light of the situation in Ukraine. But with the U.S. harboring a desire to increase its presence, and Russia's clear statements that it opposes such a presence, discussion of the future of Montreux seems likely.