Vol. 1, No. 18 (15 October 2008)

Russia’s use of the Montreux Convention as a factor in its new policy toward Turkey

Alexander Murinson, D.Phil
University of London

In the wake of the Russian-Georgian hostilities over the territory of South Ossetia, NATO in order to demonstrate its growing presence in the Black Sea and express support to Georgia, a potential NATO member, sent a small flotilla of warships through the Turkish Straits in the late August.  According to a Turkish official, “The Americans are politically backing Georgia.  This may have been a flag show off which is quite normal in international relations.”  The flotilla included three American warships and support vessels from Spain, Germany and Poland.
The Turkish Straits, comprising Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmora and the Bosporus, are in Turkey’s territorial waters.  As the sovereign over the Straits, Turkey is entrusted by the international community with regulation of the traffic of merchant and naval ships through them.  The Montreux Convention of 1936 provides the legal basis in the international law for the passage through the Turkish Straits of warships of the non-Black Sea states, and it limits the number of non-Black Sea countries’ warships passing through the Straits during the peacetime.  Only light and support naval ships are allowed to pass through the Straits during peacetime with the tonnage less than 15 thousand tons, and their number not exceeding nine vessels.  The Turkish government must be given 15-day notice of the transit.  
According to the Montreux Convention, only the Black Sea states have the right to transit their naval capital ships escorted by no more than two minesweepers, or submarines passing after surfacing; they require 8-day notification.  Thus, the size, number, armament and period of stay of vessels of non-Black Sea states were greatly limited under the Convention, both in passage through the Straits and in the Black Sea.  On the other hand, the passage of warships is allowed if, under the Covenant obligations, they were proceeding to the aid of an attacked nation.  On September 3, the United States released the information that the USS Mount Whitney would arrive in Georgia to deliver 17 tons of humanitarian goods, including blankets, fruit juice, dry milk and hygienic supplies.  On the 4th of September, the USS Mount Whitney made a controversial landing at the Georgian port of Poti.  The arrival of the USS Mount Whitney, a flagship of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, came as Moscow accused Turkey of breaching the Montreux Convention.  American government claimed that the goal of the US Navy flagship’s visit to the Georgian port is to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia, which suffers from the Russian military intervention, the goal in accord with the Montreux Covention.  To the Russians’ chagrin, on the same day, after meeting President Saakashvili, Vice President Cheney assured the Georgian government that Georgia would join the NATO alliance in the near future.
The Russian authorities tried to create a perception that the Americans were breaching the Convention by claiming that USS Mount Whitney might be delivering military supplies to Georgia.  On September 5, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation official Andrey Nesterenko stated that Russia lacked trust in the American declarations about the avowed goal of delivering humanitarian aid by the USS Mount Whitney.  Unnamed sources in the Russian media claimed that heavy equipment or, even, weapons might be on board of the American ship and requested to conduct a search of its cargo.  The Russian official described the USS Mount Whitney as “the flagship of the US 6th Fleet, which is equipped with the command and control, intelligence capabilities, that allows it command a fleet or squadron.”  He concluded that Russian authorities have questioned the legality of the entry of the USS Mount Whitney and a possibility of the breach of the Montreux Convention.  The Russian authorities warned that the possible violations of the Montreux Convention will be reported to the United Nations and other inter-governmental organizations and will be open for deliberations.  Nesterenko emphasized that “if there is a breach of the convention, then it should become a matter for deliberation in the United Nations and, possibly, other international institutions, because the matter at hand is about the violations of a well-known international agreement and should be the matter of concern for every country that signed this convention.”  In conclusion, the Russian official said: “We hope that if the facts of a serious violation of the Montreux Convention will be established, appropriate steps will be taken to correct the situation.”  He added that he did not imply any military actions.
Turkey has critical dependence on imports of natural gas.  Natural gas emerges as a strategic resource for this country.  In the early 1990s, Turkey has started the process of shifting from oil to natural gas for its energy production and industrial needs.  The consumption of natural gas has increased five times in Turkey from 150 billion cubic feet (Bcf) in 1991 to 748 (Bcf) in 2003. 
The Russian Blue Stream project even further undermines the long-term Turkish energy independence and security because it locks Russia and Turkey into a symbiotic, but unequal relationship.  Russia achieved this through the legal mechanism of the “take-or-pay” provisions of the contract obliging Turkey to pay exorbitant penalty fees for suspension of pumping Russian gas into its distribution system. The agreement to construct the underwater pipeline to deliver Russian gas to Turkey, known as the Blue Stream project, was signed during the Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s visit to Turkey on 16-17 December, 1997.  But by 2003, the Turkish leadership realized its impending dependence on Russia for its natural gas. 
Russia has imposed “take-or-pay” provisions on Turkey in the event that the Turkish government fails to purchase contracted gas.  According to the provisions, Turkey is not allowed to re-export Russian gas to third parties.  Expected heavy financial penalties compel Turkey to re-negotiate the clauses of the contract that ban it from re-exporting natural gas to third countries.  But this remains at the discretion of the Russian signatories to the agreement.  The Justice and Development (AK) government Energy Minister Hilmi Guler harshly criticized the gas deal concluded by the previous governments.  He urged sharp reductions in Turkey's reliance on Russian natural gas.  Hilmi Guler declared to the Turkish Parliament in April of 2003 that the AK government had a “strategic goal” to reduce Russian supplied natural gas from 70 percent to 30 percent within five years.  As a result of the construction of the Blue Stream project that transports 16 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year, Turkey will be locked into importing 50 percent of its gas from Russia by 2010.   
Turkish authorities are therefore concerned that the deterioration of relations with Russia would precipitate an economic crisis in the country.  Foreign trade analysts in Turkey are concerned that Russia would declare an energy war against their country as Russia did against Ukraine in the winter of 2006.  In January 2006, Russia alarmed the European Union when shipments of gas were halted for several days due to a price dispute with Ukraine.  As a result of these events, Russia's reputation as a reliable supplier of energy for Europe diminished.  In October 2007, the world’s largest producer of natural gas once again threatened to shut off gas supplies to Ukraine over a $2.2 billion debt.
The deteriorating political climate after the Russian-Georgian military conflict is likely to affect the trade between the two major trade partners, one of them being a NATO member.  Russia introduced new restrictions on and harsh customs regulations for imported goods from Turkey.  In fact, the imports of the Russian gas are increasing and affect substantially the trade balance the two countries.  Turkey’s exports to Russia are estimated to be 4.7 billion US dollars, whereas Turkey’s imports from Russia reach 23.5 billion dollars annually.
Russia introduced these measures in response to Turkey’s consent to let a NATO flotilla pass the Straits into the Black Sea.  The increasing tensions between two regional powers might further precipitate the international tensions and Russian refusal to deliver gas or curtail its delivery in the future.  Turkey depends on supply of the key energy resources, natural gas and oil from Russia.  Russian imports constitute 60% percent of the gas consumption in Turkey.  Turkey can find alternative sources of oil as did some Arab oil-producing countries, but the dependence on Russian gas exposes the weakness in Turkish economy.

As the last war in the Caucasus showed Russia does not have any intention to give up on its strategy of controlling energy resources of the former Soviet Union and using them as a political weapon in relations with its neighbors and the European Union.  In particular, Russia is preoccupied about possibility to lose control over energy networks and pipelines for export of oil and natural gas from the Caspian basin.  In particular, the BTC pipeline, which transports oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia to the Turkish sea terminal at Ceyhan, suffered a stoppage.  As became known, the Turkish section of the pipeline suffered from an explosion allegedly engineered by the Kurdish separatists.  Russia again threatened to use the energy weapon against its neighbor and major trade partner Turkey.  This action makes even more urgent for Turkey and other Western countries the need to seek energy independence from Russia. 
Now Russia seeks any pretext in the international law, including the Montreux Convention, to demonstrate who the main regional power in the region and the final arbiter of all conflicts in the Caucasus is.  The Russian Federation cannot exclude NATO from the Black Sea region completely because Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania are the Black Sea states.  While the United States tries to assure Turkey that it does intend to undermine the international Convention adopted in 1936, Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S., told journalists: “We have no plans to change the Montreux Treaty.  All the U.S. ships that pass through the straits complied with the treaty and we will continue to do so.”  The European Union should pursue the unified policy in coordination with Turkey on energy issues, including the construction of the Nabucco project to wean itself from the increasing dependence on the Russian energy supplies.