Turkey restricts US access to the Black Sea


After the hostilities in Georgia in August 2008, Turkey prevented the US, its NATO ally, from sending large naval ships into the Black Sea.


Ostensibly, the US wanted to use these ships to transport humanitarian aid to Georgia, even though it was more convenient, and quicker, to bring the aid in by air.  In reality, the US wished to make a show of support for Georgia, in circumstances in which coming to the aid of Georgia militarily had been ruled out.


Military action was unequivocally ruled out by US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, at a press conference in the Pentagon on 15 August 2008.  Asked if “there's any prospect or possibility of US military force being used in this conflict”, he replied:


“I don't see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation. Is that clear enough?” [1]


At the same press conference, General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated the US wanted to dispatch to Georgia the US Navy hospital ships, Comfort and Mercy, both converted oil tankers, with a displacement of around 70,000 tons each.  But Turkey refused to give the US, its NATO ally, permission to move these vessels through the Turkish Straits from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. 


Montreux Convention

Turkey did so under the 1936 Montreux Convention [2], which makes Turkey the gatekeeper to the Black Sea and lays down the rules to be applied by Turkey in allowing the entry of ships from the Mediterranean.


These rules state that “in time of peace, merchant vessels shall enjoy complete freedom of transit and navigation in the Straits, by day and by night, under any flag and with any kind of cargo” (Article 2).


However, they impose very severe restrictions on the entry of warships belonging to non-Black Sea states and on how long they can remain in the Black Sea.  Thus, under Article 18(1), a limit of 45,000 tons is imposed on the aggregate tonnage of warships belonging to non-Black Sea states that can be present in the Black Sea at any time.  Out of that 45,000 ton limit, each individual non-Black Sea state is restricted to 30,000 tons.


And Article 18(2) stipulates:


“Vessels of war belonging to non-Black Sea Powers shall not remain in the Black Sea more than twenty-one days, whatever be the object of their presence there.”


In addition, under Article 13, Turkey must be notified in advance of a proposed passage through the Straits by a warship, 15 days in advance in the case of warships belonging to non-Black Sea powers, and the notification must “specify the destination, name, type and number of the vessels, as also the date of entry for the outward passage and, if necessary, for the return journey”.


A small naval show

It is not entirely clear that Turkey was within its rights under the Montreux Convention in refusing the passage of the hospital ships, even 70,000 ton hospital ships.  The Convention allows for “auxiliary vessels” defined in Annex II B(6) as vessels that are normally employed “in some other way than as fighting ships, and which are not specifically built as fighting ships” to be excluded from the tonnage limitations quoted above.  Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Turkey blocked their passage [3].


However, the US administration was determined that there would be at least a small naval show of bringing humanitarian aid to Georgia.  Beginning on 22 August 2008, three US ships went through the Turkish Straits and on to Georgia – the guided missile destroyer, USS McFaul (8,915 tons), the US Coast Guard cutter Dallas (3,250 tons) and the USS Mount Whitney (18, 400 tons) – an aggregate tonnage of a little over the 30,000 ton limit allowed under the Convention for a single non-Black Sea State to have in the Black Sea at one time.


The USS Mount Whitney is the command ship of the US 6th fleet in the Mediterranean.  Its official website describes it as “the most sophisticated Command, Control, Communications, Computer, and Intelligence (C4I) ship ever commissioned” [4].  It is bizarre that this highly sophisticated warship was pressed into service as a cargo vessel to ferry humanitarian aid to Georgia.


So, how much humanitarian aid did the US deliver to Georgia by sea?  The US European Command responsible for the whole operation reported on 15 September 2008:


“More than 1,145 short tons [2,000 lbs] of humanitarian assistance supplies were flown to Tbilisi, Georgia. … An additional 123 short tons of supplies were delivered by sea.” [5]


In other words, less than 10% of the total was delivered by sea.  Clearly, delivery by sea was unnecessary and, even if delivery by sea was necessary, it could have been done by merchant ships that have unrestricted access to the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits, and are, by definition, much more suitable for carrying cargo than warships.  But the latter was not an option, since the White House wanted the US Navy to put on a show in the Black Sea.


Russia’s questioning of the US delivering humanitarian aid by warship was entirely justified.


NATO group

In fact, there were other non-Black Sea warships in the Black Sea at the same time, including one belonging to the US, the frigate USS Taylor.  This was part of a group of four NATO frigates (from Spain, Germany, Poland and the US) [6].  The aggregate displacement of these was over 17,500 tons.  According to NATO, this Group entered the Black Sea on 21 August 2008, to conduct “routine port visits and exercises with NATO member nations bordering the Black Sea”.  This NATO report was at pains to emphasise that the Group would be staying in the Black Sea for 21 days only “in accordance with the terms of the Montreux Convention”.


Most likely, Turkey had given permission for this Group to enter the Black Sea before hostilities broke out in Georgia, and therefore before US requests for their warships to enter the Black Sea, ostensibly to bring humanitarian aid to Georgia.  By eventually permitting the other three US warships to be in the Black Sea in late August, it looks as if Turkey stretched a point and exceeded the Convention limits both in respect of the aggregate tonnage of non-Black Sea warships (which was at least 48,000 compared with the maximum of 45,000) and the aggregate tonnage of US warships (which was at least 35,000 compared with the maximum of 30,000).


Dallas goes to Sevastopol

After its “humanitarian” mission to Georgia, the US Coast Guard cutter Dallas proceeded to the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol in the Crimea, where the naval base is partially leased to Russia until 2017.  According to the US Coast Guard, the Dallas was to “participate in previously scheduled theater security cooperation activities with the Ukrainian Navy” [7].  However, on arrival at Sevastopol on 1 September 2008, the ship was met with thousands of protesters chanting “Yankees go home!” and waving banners with the slogan “NATO Stop!” [8].  The crew chose to remain on board and the ship left the next day [9].


Nearly 60% of the population of Crimea are ethnically Russian, which accounts for the warm welcome received by the Dallas – and for the fact that the regional parliament in Crimea recommended overwhelmingly that Ukraine should follow Russia and recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.


Free access for NATO

There is no doubt that the US would like NATO warships to have free access to the Black Sea and has pressed for a revision of the Montreux Convention to allow that to happen.  There is also no doubt that, despite being a NATO member, Turkey has resisted US pressure to revise the Convention and refused to ignore its terms in regulating NATO access to the Black Sea.


The parties to the Convention are the states bordering the Black Sea in 1936 – Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and the Soviet Union – plus Australia, France Greece, Japan, the UK and Yugoslavia.  The US is not a party to it.  Article 29 makes provision for the parties to the Convention to amend it at a specially convened conference, but it gives Turkey a veto over any decision by the conference to amend it:


“Such a conference may only take decisions by a unanimous vote, except as regards cases of revision involving Articles 14 and 18, for which a majority of three-quarters of the High Contracting Parties shall be sufficient.  The said majority shall include three-quarters of the High Contracting Parties which are Black Sea Powers, including Turkey.”


No doubt, it is possible that, under pressure, Turkey might be persuaded to vote to amend the Convention, or to ignore its terms.  But, up to now, Turkey has resisted.


A few years ago, Turkey successfully resisted pressure to extend NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea.  In this operation, which has been going on since March 2003, NATO ships patrol the Mediterranean, ostensibly to “help detect, deter and protect against terrorist activity” [10].  It’s a NATO maritime contribution to America’s “global war on terrorism”.


Turkey (and Russia) successfully resisted proposals to extend it into the Black Sea, which would have meant tearing up the Convention.  Turkey later initiated Operation Black Sea Harmony, ostensibly to perform a similar task in the Black Sea.


If Georgia and Ukraine were to become full members of NATO (like Bulgaria and Rumania, and Turkey itself), pressure for revision of the Convention to allow NATO free access to the Black Sea would increase.  In that event, the only Black Sea state outside NATO would be Russia (unless one counts Abkhazia).


Turkey refuses to take sides

In the wake of the Georgian conflict, Turkey came under pressure to take sides between Russia and the West (and Georgia), but it has refused to do so.


Turkey is a longstanding member of NATO (since 1952) and NATO condemned Russia’s actions in Georgia, as did the European Union, which it wishes to join.  It might therefore be expected that it would be firmly on the West’s side against Russia.  But it hasn’t condemned Russia’s actions in Georgia – it has merely expressed concern about events there.


In recent years, Turkey has played a vital part in the successful attempts by the US/EU to gain access to oil from the Caspian Basin, bypassing Russia and Iran, by means of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which starts in Azerbaijan at Baku on the Caspian Sea and passes through Georgian and Turkish territory, ending at Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea.   Without Turkey’s consent, the West’s attempts to obtain oil from the Caspian Basin without going through Russia or Iran would have been impossible.


Turkey also has extensive economic relations with its Georgian neighbour, including selling it arms and training some of its military officers, so it doesn’t want to fall out with Georgia either.


On the other hand, Russia is a much more important trading partner, and is set to replace Germany as Turkey’s most important trading partner, with a trade volume of around $25 billion a year (compared with around $1 billion a year with Georgia).  Crucially, Turkey gets 70% of its natural gas and 50% of its coal from Russia.  About 2.5 million Russian tourists visit Turkey every year, outnumbering any other nationality.  So talking a definite stand against Russia could have dangerous consequences.


Russia has been reminding Turkey of these consequences by subjecting Turkish lorries entering Russia from Georgia to intensive customs checks, leading to long queues at the border crossing.  At the time of writing, this problem appears to have been resolved.


(This action by Russia may have been retribution for Turkey’s decision to allow US warships to enter the Black Sea on their way to Georgia and/or a warning that they must leave the Black Sea within 21 days.)


Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact

Understandably, therefore, Turkey didn’t come down on Georgia’s side against Russia, unlike NATO and the EU.  Instead, it came up with the idea of a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact, bringing together Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan with Russia and Turkey (and pointedly leaving out Iran, the other major power bordering the Caucasus).  Prime Minister Recep Erdogan went to Moscow on 12 August 2008 with this proposal and was welcomed with open arms.


The proposal has little chance of bearing fruit for a variety of reasons: in the short term at least, Georgia won’t have anything to do with Russia while it recognises South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states; relations between Turkey and Armenia have been at loggerheads for decades because of the killing of Armenians by Turks in the latter years of the Ottoman Empire (though the fact that Turkish President, Abdullah Gül, flew to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on 6 September 2008 to watch a football match between Turkey and Armenia, along with his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, may mark the beginning of a thaw in relations); and Armenia and Azerbaijan remain in dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an area with a majority Armenia population, occupied by Armenia, within the internationally recognised borders of Azerbaijan.  So, it is unlikely that the proposed Pact will lead to either stability or co-operation in the Caucasus in the short term.


Nevertheless, it was welcomed by Russia as a demonstration that, unlike NATO and the EU, Turkey regarded the Caucasus as a matter for states in the region.  On a visit to Ankara on 2 September 2008, for discussions with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ali Babacan, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, put it this way:


“We see the chief value in the Turkish initiative for the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform in that it rests on common sense and assumes that countries of any region and, first of all, countries belonging to this region should themselves decide how to conduct affairs there. And others should help, but not dictate their recipes.” [11]


Asked if his discussions with Ali Babacan were “not as a NATO member country, but as a major trade and economic partner”, he replied:


“I will say at once that we feel no restraining factors due to Turkey’s NATO membership within the framework of our bilateral dialogue, which is truly sincere, truly trustful and truly mutually respectful. In our bilateral relations Turkey has never tried to use its NATO membership to the detriment of these principles on which our dialogue is based. Moreover, we, naturally, presume that Turkey fulfills the obligations and commitments which it has to fulfill as a member of the North Atlantic Alliance. This is completely understandable.


“But meanwhile Turkey does not forget about its other international commitments and obligations. In the first place, obligations under international law as a whole, in the framework of the UN, OSCE and in the framework of the international treaties that govern the regime on the Black Sea, for example. Turkey never places its commitments to NATO above its other international obligations, but always strictly follows all those obligations that it has in the totality.”


So, Russia is content, as long as Turkey doesn’t put loyalty to NATO above everything else.  Turkey didn’t in August 2008: on the contrary, it fulfilled its obligations under the Montreux Convention and restricted the access of US naval vessels to the Black Sea, in accordance with the Convention.


A new world order, says Gül

On 18 August 2008, The Guardian published an account of an interview with Turkish President, Abdullah Gül, which makes very interesting reading.  It begins as follows:


“Days after Russia scored a stunning geopolitical victory in the Caucasus, President Abdullah Gül of Turkey said he saw a new multipolar world emerging from the wreckage of war.


“The conflict in Georgia, Gül asserted, showed that the United States could no longer shape global politics on its own, and should begin sharing power with other countries.


“‘I don't think you can control all the world from one centre,’ Gül told the Guardian. ‘There are big nations. There are huge populations. There is unbelievable economic development in some parts of the world. So what we have to do is, instead of unilateral actions, act all together, make common decisions and have consultations with the world. A new world order, if I can say it, should emerge.’” [12]


Russia should be more than pleased with those opinions, the US less so.



David Morrison


18 October 2008



[1]  www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4275

[2]  untreaty.un.org/unts/60001_120000/19/2/00036056.pdf

[3]  www.mcclatchydc.com/251/story/49307.html

[4]  www.mtwhitney.navy.mil/site%20pages/history.aspx

[5]  www.eucom.mil/english/Georgia/FullStory.asp?art=1826

[6]  www.nato.int/docu/pr/2008/p08-110e.html

[7]  coastguardnews.com/coast-guard-cutter-dallas-arrives-in-sevastopol-ukraine/2008/09/02/

[8]  en.rian.ru/world/20080901/116450879.html

[9]  en.rian.ru/world/20080902/116477984.html

[10]  www.nato.int/issues/active_endeavour/index.html

[11]  www.un.int/russia/new/MainRoot/docs/off_news/030908/newen3.htm

[12]  www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/aug/16/turkey.usforeignpolicy