May 18, 2021


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Canal Istanbul Project Creates Discussions about Turkish Straits

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Criticism by dozens of retired Turkish admirals
and diplomats warning the government not to

open up for debate a key international treaty
managing Turkey’s major waterways has created a new controversy.

The Turkish government last month approved
the plans to build a shipping canal in Istanbul

similar to the Panama or Suez canals as an
alternative to Turkey’s internationally

used straits connecting Asia to Europe, Reuters reported.

The 45-kilometer Canal Istanbul is projected
to cost $9.2 billion.

More than 120 retired Turkish ambassadors
released a statement warning the project could

put the Montreux Convention in jeopardy and
negatively affect Turkey’s “absolute sovereignty”

over the waterways.

Following that up, an open letter was signed
by 104 retired admirals and published last week.

Admirals said the treaty allowed Turkey to
maintain its neutrality during World War II,

calling it “the biggest diplomatic victory
that completed the Lausanne Peace Treaty”,

which determined most of modern Turkey’s borders.

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“We believe that there is a need
to avoid any statements and actions that could

cause the Montreux Convention, an important
treaty in terms of Turkey’s survival,

to be brought up for discussion,” the statement said.

The Montreux Convention has several meanings
for regional politics and security.

Especially, it prevents the risk of confrontation
between Russia and the US in the Black Sea region.

Paul Goble is analyzing the possible outcomes
of the revision of this convention in his

article on the Jamestown website.

The 1936 Montreux Convention governs the passage
of ships between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea

via the Turkish Straits, dictates the
size of the vessels that can remain there,

as well as limits how long they are allowed to stay.

Now, 85 years later, this influential treaty
is likely to be revised, Moscow military analyst

Sergey Marzhetsky says when Turkey completes
its new Istanbul Canal, which will allow ships

to bypass the northern element of the Straits—the
Bosphorus (although not the Dardanelles).

But despite the fears of many in Russia, it
is highly unlikely there will be any revision

in the Convention without Turkey’s approval
or that such changes will benefit the West

at Russia’s expense.

Instead, he argues, Ankara’s ambitions
are such that they may lead to modifications

of Montreux that actually advantage the Russian
Federation more than Turkey’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies.

The 1936 accord specifies that civilian ships
from countries without a Black Sea littoral

have the free right of passage through the
Turkish Straits both in times of peace and times of war.

But military ships of non-littoral states
can be present in the Black Sea only in peacetime,

for a limited period, usually 21 days, and
with a specific tonnage, lower than many of

the largest ships in the NATO fleets.

In recent years, the Western alliance has
rotated ships through the Straits into the

Black Sea on a regularly to maintain a
presence and project power, but it has not

been able to insert its largest vessels or submarines.

The presence of Western navies in the Black
Sea has been a constant irritant for Moscow;

consequently, the Russian government has sometimes
favored a revision of Montreux that would

eliminate them, and other times, it backed
this long-standing convention as the best

way for Russia to constrain the unwelcome Western presence.

Two developments have exacerbated Moscow’s
concerns about Montreux in recent months,

Marzhetsky says.

On the one hand, Ankara is seeking to build
a canal that would allow ships to transit

between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea
without passing through part of the Straits.

Such a canal could vitiate Montreux, he argues,
even though Russian officials have insisted

that Montreux’s restrictions would apply
to ships using the Istanbul Canal as well.

And on the other hand, he points out, Ankara
is pursuing a dramatic expansion in its navy.

It already has the second-largest army in
NATO, and it clearly wants to have a major

fleet as well, one with a full-sized aircraft
carrier—it is currently constructing a small one.

This would allow it to project greater power
not only in the Eastern Mediterranean but

in the Black Sea as well.

The Russian ambassador in Ankara has insisted
that the Montreux limits will survive the

construction of the Istanbul Canal, and apply
with equal force to ships using that waterway

as ones passing through the Bosphorus.

But the Russian military analyst counters
that “this is not entirely so,” because

while the appearance of the new canal will
not affect the Montreux rules, it allow

the Turkish government an opportunity to “raise
the question about the review of the provisions

of that international legal document”, and
argue that it no longer “corresponds to contemporary realities.”

If Ankara were simply an ally of Washington,
as some Russians think, that could lead to

a situation in which the United States would
be able to put larger naval vessels into the

Black Sea for longer periods or perhaps without
any limitations at all.

But Turkey is not a US proxy, therefore, any
revisions Ankara may propose or agree to will

work to its benefit and not necessarily for its Western allies.

Ankara sees no advantage to a larger presence
in the Black Sea or the Eastern Mediterranean

of ships from the US, the United Kingdom, or France.

They would only encumber Turkey’s aspirations
to be the dominant player in the region.

What this means, the Russian analyst predicts,
is that “Turkey will solely seek to exclude

from the Montreux Convention limits the
passage through its Straits of aircraft carriers

not carrying nuclear weapons.”

That way, Turkey could freely send its aircraft
carriers and possibly also submarines into

the Black Sea; but the US, the UK, and France could not.

Thus, Washington, London, and Paris would
not be beneficiaries of any change, and Moscow

would not be a big loser, Marzhetsky says.

It could be a beneficiary because
its civilian fleet would be able to make use

of the new canal, avoiding the crowded Bosphorus route.

“In other words,” the Russian military
analyst contends, “if Turkey does revise

Montreux, it will do so to its own benefit” and no one else’s.

Those treaty modifications will not be all
that welcome in Russia on principle, but the

results will certainly not be the tragedy
some are suggesting.

And that gives Moscow the opportunity to side
with Turkey against the West on revising the

1936 convention, something that Turkey will
welcome and that will help to further distance

Ankara from Western capitals—yet another
development Moscow can profit from.

If others in Moscow accept this argument,
it could mean the Kremlin will now ally itself

with Ankara on this issue.

Such a move could create new problems and
tensions within the transatlantic alliance.

Consequently, all countries are unsure about
the possible outcomes of the Montreux revision attempt.

This issue might gain reference a meaning
after series of geopolitical challenges in the Black Sea region.

However, the Turkish government will try to
be loyal to the Montreux Convention because

the agreement is important, “key document”
for the security of the Black Sea region.

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