Is the Black Sea a “powder keg” of world politics?

By Alla Yazikova

Russia has long sought to get to shores of the Black Sea, making a lot of effort to strengthen its position in the adjacent regions - in the Caucasus and the Balkans. Already under Peter the Great, Russia marched in the Caucasus direction on the frontier of open confrontation with Persia and Turkey. The result of repeated wars between Russian and Ottoman empires was also the consolidation of Russia's positions in the Balkans and in the Black Sea region. After the First World War, the collapse of Ottoman Empire and formation of the USSR, Russian-Turkish relations were significantly strengthened, and it should be noted the role played by the first President of Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1923–1938).

In July 1936, the Montreux Convention was signed by the joint efforts of the Black Sea states, namely USSR, Turkey and Romania. As for warships, class and tonnage restrictions were introduced for non-Black Sea countries. The total tonnage of military vessels of non-Black Sea countries should not exceed 30 thousand tons, and the duration of their stay is not more than 21 days.

It is important to emphasize that the Montreux Convention is valid to this day and is automatically extended if none of its participants have any objections. Turkey was recognized as the custodian of the Convention, on whose territory the Black Sea straits are located.

The convention was also signed by Great Britain, France, Greece, Italy, then Yugoslavia, but the United States did not sign it at the time, and today it creates a number of legal problems of their stay in the Black Sea.

Over the past three decades, Russia (before it - the USSR) has achieved significant success in consolidating its position in the Black Sea region. After the Second World War, on its shores were located predominantly the Soviet republics of the USSR and the countries of the Soviet bloc. The only exception was Turkey - a member of NATO since 1952, but relations with it were gradually improved. The positive changes in Russian-Turkish relations were facilitated by the visit of Turkish President Turgut Ozal (March 11, 1991), who arrived in the USSR at the invitation of Mikhail Gorbachev, which coincided with the 70th anniversary of the first Soviet-Turkish treaty signed on March 16, 1921.

Along with the discussion of a number of international issues that are significant for both countries, a number of agreements were signed in the field of trade and economic cooperation. In particular, an agreement was reached on increasing the loan from the USSR to the sum of 400 million dollars by Turkey, and also that the volume of gas sold to Turkey would be doubled - from 5 to 10 billion cubic meters. Cooperation in the field of trade and tourism economics, as well as the attraction of Turkish construction companies to Russia, became the main area of cooperation between the two countries.

It was also decided to support the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) project, which in June 1992 included 11 countries of the Big Black Sea region (Albania, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine). Later, BSEC joined Serbia.

At the same time, in relations between Russia and Turkey as the main "stake-holders" of the Black Sea straits, disagreements repeatedly arose, which in most cases were resolved through negotiations. So, in January 1994, without any consultation with the parties to the Montreux Convention, primarily with Russia, Turkey introduced a special Regulation on shipping in the Straits area, which entered into force on July 1 of the same year. The regulation provided for a restrictive order of passage through the Straits, up to the prohibition of passage for ships, depending on their tonnage and the nature of the goods being carried. Some of the provisions of the Regulations later proved to be useful, but, as the then Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation noted, the former ambassador to Turkey, Albert Chernyshev, the very manner and form of Turkey’s actions "was demonstratively defiant."

The reasons for such “misunderstandings” can be explained by the uneven nature of Turkish-Russian relations. On the one hand, Russia recognizes in all official documents of Turkey “the status of a world power”, not as a combination of economic, military and foreign policy potential, but as a result of the fact that Russia has nuclear potential and is a member of the UN Security Council.

At the same time, the Turkish leadership did not miss the opportunity to declare itself the main “keeper” not only of the Black Sea straits, but also of the Black Sea itself, on the shores of which NATO members are today located - Romania and Bulgaria. In 2003, an attempt was made by the Turkish patrol boat to prevent the passage of the Russian warship “Caesar Kunikov” through the Straits, and only the appearance on the deck of Russian marines prevented the imminent incident.

After the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber in the Syrian skies on November 25, 2015, relations between Russia and Turkey were frozen, and Turkey unilaterally repeatedly tried to complicate the situation by preventing passage through the Straits of Russian military courts. The situation was even more unacceptable after the attempted military coup in Turkey (July 15–16, 2016), when Turkey closed the Bosphorus for the passage of Russian oil tankers and grain bulk carriers. On the same days, the rebels managed to block the bridge over the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

It should be mentioned that attempts to overthrow the government through military coups were made in Turkey several times (1961, 1971, 1980). Overthrown by the military in September 1961, Prime Minister Ali Adnan Ertekin Menderes was executed by hanging. Prime Minister Sami Suleiman Gundogdu Demirel was forced to abdicate and subsequently appeared before the court. The main requirements of the military, as a rule, boiled down to the need to "put an end to anarchy and implement the reforms of the first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk." Among them is the prevention of the Islamization of Turkey and the increase in corruption among the top Turkish politicians.

Internal instability and the absence of normal business relations between the main Black Sea countries - Russia and Turkey - contributed to the gradual consolidation of positions in the Black Sea region of the United States and NATO countries.

At the end of 2005, agreements were signed with the members of NATO - Bulgaria and Romania on the establishment of US naval bases on the Black Sea coast. The strategic balance of forces was even more disturbed after the decision was made in 2010 to deploy the US missile defence system in Romania.

Relations between the United States and Russia became even more complicated in 2014–2016 after the annexation of the Crimea and Sevastopol, the Russian naval base on the Black Sea, and against the background of multiple contradictions between them over the conflict situation in eastern Ukraine and military operations in Syria.

At the session of the NATO Council held in July 2016, Romania’s proposal to create a naval group of the Black Sea countries of NATO was considered, but it was not implemented due to the disagreement of Bulgaria, and the remaining Turkey and Romania could hardly be recognized as a “grouping”. Nevertheless, the activities of the Black Sea countries were continued, both on a multilateral and on a bilateral basis.

In May 2016, the Ukrainian-Turkish military cooperation road map until 2020 was signed. According to the Minister of National Defense of Turkey, besides military-technical issues, plans for conducting joint manoeuvres, as well as joint measures “to enhance security in the Black Sea region,” were discussed. At the same time, referring to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “NATO is absent on the Black Sea,” and “this sea has become almost a lake in Russia. If we do not act now, history will not forgive us.”

In Western media, these statements were compared with the words of the Turkish president during a visit to St. Petersburg (August 2016) after an attempted military coup in Ankara, when he repeatedly thanked Vladimir Putin for his help, calling him a "dear friend."

This does not deny the fact that Russia remains the only state that is opposed by active military groups of NATO countries in the Black Sea. In addition to the US military bases in Romania and Bulgaria, Russia is concerned about the uncertainty of the position of Turkey, which has the greatest military potential of the Black Sea states. Thus, in terms of the number of submarines, Turkey surpasses all coastal countries (according to open data, there are 14 of them).

According to the commander of the Black Sea Fleet of Russia, Admiral Alexander Vitko, after the annexation of the Crimea and Sevastopol, the Black Sea Fleet "began the process of large-scale renovation and modernization of military equipment." In 2015, about 40 new ships entered the fleet, including three diesel-electric submarines and two small rocket ships, a squadron of SU-30SM multi-role fighters was formed.

In August 2016, exercises began with the participation of ships of the Black Sea Fleet - simultaneously in the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas. A number of ships are equipped with Caliber missile systems, which have already gained fame in the fighting in Syria. In the autumn, the aircraft-carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov, capable of striking long-range aircraft and cruise missiles, should join them.

Summing up, it is impossible not to notice that, despite the complexity and sometimes the explosiveness of the situation in the adjacent regions, the situation on the Black Sea remains relatively stable. In many respects, this is facilitated by the maintenance by the Black Sea countries of the legal regulation (the Montreux Convention, July 1936), which this year is 80 years old. Experts who call the Black Sea a “powder keg” are not right. In the years between the two world wars, this term characterized the situation in the Balkans, both because of the constant conflicts between the small countries located there and because of the attempts of aggression against them by the major powers - Hitler's Germany and fascist Italy.

As for the situation in the regions of which the “Big Black Sea Coast” consists, including the western and eastern Balkans, the countries of the South Caucasus, the southern regions of Russia, Ukraine and the Crimea, as well as Turkey, there are still unresolved conflicts here. The Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization (BSEC) and the structures created on its basis, the BSEC Parliamentary Assembly, the International Center for Black Sea Studies, the Business Council and others, play an important role in resolving disputes. It is important that within the framework of the BSEC Parliamentary Assembly representatives of countries that do not have diplomatic relations among themselves can lead a discussion on controversial issues, and in some cases they manage to find interim solutions to questions relating to their competence.

But the main thing is the strengthening of Russia's positions on the Black Sea, the expansion of the capabilities of its Black Sea Fleet and its contacts with the countries of the “Greater Black Sea Area”.

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