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When Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked Turkish President Erdogan to close off Russia’s access to the Black Sea he may have gotten more than he bargained for.
By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) This week, a US government CRS report for Congress warned that Turkey’s recent closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits could undermine the Montreux Convention and put NATO at a disadvantage in the Black Sea. This decision could negatively affect NATO’s ability to protect shipping in the Black Sea, NATO’s ability to protect Romania and Bulgaria from Russian aggression, and the balance of forces in a prolonged Russia-Ukraine war.
“Turkey has taken some very strong moves since this conflict began under the Montreux Convention,” U.S. Under Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland said during a March 8th Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “Strong moves to deny warships access to the Black Sea.”
In late February, Turkey acknowledged a state of war between Russia and Ukraine, invoking Article 19 of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which bars belligerent countries’ naval access to and from the Black Sea through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. A few days earlier, Ukraine had called for the Straits’ closure. Shortly after Turkey’s decision, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed appreciation for Turkey’s implementation of the convention and support for Ukraine.
“We have notified all riparian and non-riparian countries of the Black Sea not to send their warships to pass through our straits,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said after a call with Blinken.
Although initially welcomed by the United States and Ukraine, Article 19 may have a limited near-term military impact on Russia. This is because Russia has a strongly predominant naval force compared to any other Black Sea nation and had already reinforced its fleet before the closure. Furthermore, Article 19 does not prevent Russia from sealifting weapons, ammunition, fuel, and other materials of war into the Black Sea.
“Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars,” said Army General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Forces during WWI. To win a war you need robust and flexible logistics. You need a constant flow of heavy supplies like food, ammunition, and fuel. To move large amounts of heavy material, you need ships. You need the fourth arm of defense. You need sealift. Article 19 prevents most Russian warships from entering the Black Sea but does nothing to hamper Russian heavy logistics.
Article 19 not only does nothing to hamper Russian commercial sealift efforts, but it helped Russia form a virtual blockade around Ukraine and has assured Russian naval dominance in the region. It has allowed elements of the Russian Black Sea fleet to tie up elements of the Ukrainian military against a potential attack from the sea; similar to the feint staged by the US Marine Corps and Navy during the Persian Gulf War 1990-91.
The fact that NATO cannot protect cargo ships from entering Ukraine (or from being used by the Russian Navy as human shields) – and has failed to protect unarmed vessels in NATO territorial waters – has created a virtual naval blockade on the entire nation of Ukraine. Ukraine can still supply some relatively light materials from Poland via truck convoys, particularly as Ukraine’s railroads operate on a different gauge than that of Europe. In war, heavy items in enough volume to make a significant difference must arrive via ship. This is now impossible because the entrance to Ukraine’s most important ports have been mined, Russian warships have shot at innocent commercial vessels, and NATO has warned ships to stay away.
Imports are not only vital to the war effort but also crucial to millions of people facing famine. Ukrainian farmers – who produced a record grain crop last year – say they now are critically short of fertilizer, as well as the pesticides and herbicides which typically arrive via ship. Even if farmers had enough of those materials, they can’t get enough diesel fuel to power their equipment, let alone return to their fields or homes due to the war, if they have not been destroyed by the Russian advance.
Russia knows the importance of these ports. This is why the southern port city of Kherson was the first Ukrainian city Russia captured after invading the country on February 24th The Ukrainian city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov has prevented Russia from moving ships and supplies from Rostov-on-Don to the Kerch Strait and out into the Black Sea. Control of the seas is why the fighting has been so intense here.
Even if they could get fertilizer, seed, and – most critically, diesel to run tractors into the country, how would they get crops out? Ukraine and Russia are major wheat exporters, together accounting for about a third of world exports- almost all of which passes through the Black Sea.
Russia can still export some crops via the Eastern Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, but for how long? Late this week, NATO warned ships away from this critical port, and marine insurance rates are climbing throughout the region. Russian-flagged bulkers can ignore these warnings and possibly obtain insurance from the state, but they still need to exit the Bosporus and find a nation willing to offload them. Nations in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, facing the potential of starvation versus sanction will likely choose the former over the latter for their own self-preservation.
The alternate route for Russian food exports is via barges and small ships sailing from the interior to Novorossiysk. Those sailing this route must, however, pass within 25 nautical miles of Mariupol, which was the center of intense resistance fighting in Ukraine, but recently collapsed allowing Russian traffic to resume on the Sea of Azov.
If pressured to stop Russian imports of war material and exports of oil and grain, Turkey could use the possibility of world famine – along with the media’s sea-blindness – to keep the Bosporus open to Russian cargo ships.
Technically, Article 19 prevents only Russia from moving ships through the straits, so why is the security of NATO shipping – not to mention the national security of NATO members Romania and Bulgaria – affected by the Turkish closure?
In a March 10 discussion with the United States, a Turkish official explained that Turkey has advised all countries to refrain from sending warships through the Straits but has not formally closed them to non-belligerent states (including NATO).
Russia may not even want to send more warships into the Black Sea. According to James Kraska at the U.S. Naval War College, prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russia sailed 16 warships into the Black Sea to conduct “military exercises”, and NATO had removed all their warships(except locally homeported vessels owned by Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey itself) leaving the Black Sea unprotected.
“Discouraging other countries from transit when Russia can return ships to Black Sea bases could undermine the Convention,” says the report to congress. “This could put NATO at a disadvantage.”
The report further states that Turkey’s control over Black Sea access could affect the balance of forces in a longer Russia-Ukraine war (and beyond). When Turkey itself is not at war, Article 18 of the Montreux Convention places transit limits on the aggregate tonnage of non-Black Sea country warships and the duration of their stays. This prevents NATO’s most powerful military asset, American aircraft carriers, from entering. (Our naval experts say the Navy would never risk sending a carrier with through the strait even if Turkey allowed it.)
The U.S. is also not sure where Turkey stands in terms of NATO and Russia. Turkey is a NATO member but recently made a large arms deal to purchase anti-aircraft weapons from Russia. While Turkey has denounced the invasion and supplied Ukraine with armed drone aircraft and humanitarian assistance, the Turkish government has said it will not join economic sanctions against Russia.
“The ongoing war tests the consequences of Turkish military cooperation with Ukraine,” says the CRS report. “How that cooperation impacts the war and how Russia responds to it could have implications for U.S. policy.”
“U.S. officials and lawmakers might evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of Turkish actions affecting access for Russian and U.S./NATO warships, both during the war and its aftermath. Such evaluations could inform U.S. efforts to influence Turkish actions and adjust U.S. military deployments.
Article 19 Montreux Convention only prevents belligerent nations from transiting the Bosporus Strait and entering the Black Sea. So technically, this article only pertains to Russian warships. Still, nothing in the treaty prevents non-belligerent nations like the UK, France, and Italy from sending warships into the Black Sea to protect NATO merchant ship or to defend NATO’s territorial waters in Romania.
Their failure to do so is because Turkey has advised all countries not to send warships through the Straits.
This, however, is only a request.
Even if these NATO nations became belligerent in the eyes of Turkey, the U.S. Navy could technically send warships through because the U.S. is not a party to the convention. (Since 1936, however, the U.S. has respected its terms as they reflect customary international law.)
“What matters more than the Montreux Convention is media and politics,” a U.S. naval intelligence officer told gCaptain. “Even if it’s technically legal for us to do so, and even if we just want to protect innocent shipping, we can’t just barge into Turkey’s territorial waters unannounced. We can apply political pressure, but so can Putin. What may work is applying pressure to Turkish President Erdogan’s Achilles heel: his reputation in the media.”
Political pressure may be difficult considering the media is focused on NATO’s land border between Ukraine and Poland and does not understand the significance of Ports. Even media analysts who do understand heavy logistics – like former NATO Commander Admiral James Stavridis who was interviewed on today’s Meet The Press – are simply not talking about it. Everyone is focused on no-fly zones and inland borders, but few politicians or pundits are looking at NATO’s border between Romania and Ukraine on the Black Sea.
One alternative option NATO could consider is a Naval Blockade of Russian Cargo in the Aegean Sea or Eastern Mediterranean where NATO warships can still operate freely. Naval intelligence experts gCaptain talked to believe this is unlikely.
“As long as media attention remains focused on land, politicians in the West will focus on land-based solutions, allowing Russia to act as if it owns the Black Sea,” said one expert. This will leave Romania’s coastline unprotected, Russia’s blockade of Ukraine imports in place, and insurance rates too high for ships to pick up grain.
Possibly the biggest threat to security in the Black Sea may not be Russian warships but the personalities of the top three Black Sea power brokers; Zelenskyy, Putin, and Erdogan.
President Zelenskyy has quickly proven that he and his countrymen are some of the best information operations (IO) – defined as using information, intelligence and media during military operations to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of adversaries while protecting our own – experts in the world.
“Everyone has been waiting for Russia to launch a successful IO campaign to quickly sap support from Ukraine. It has not happened,” said IO expert Jason Criss Howk in a recent article. “Instead, the former entertainer turned President of Ukraine is giving President Putin a lesson on leadership and communication.”
Putin has largely failed at IO abroad but has shown some ability to control the narrative within Russia. He is, however, famously sensitive about how he is perceived among Russians and has locked down the media. After years of government-led pressure and harassment, the few independent outlets that remained at the start of the war have either been blocked by censors, declared illegal, or dissolved themselves.
As adept as Zelenskyy’s team is they can’t penetrate and manipulate a media system that’s been decapitated by Putin. But they can work IO on heads of state who are important to Putin, and few people are as crucial to Putin’s success today as Erdogan.
Over the years Turkey’s president has repeatedly dismissed criticism of the country’s press freedom record, telling a U.S. broadcaster that the country is “incomparably free” but the facts tell another story.
In a series of steps to bolster his image, Erdogan has tightened the noose around the neck of Turkey’s independent news media. As recently as January of this year he urged media organizations and regulators to take “decisive steps” against programs that undermine Turkey’s national and moral fabric. He called on “all institutions and parties concerned” to prevent “harmful content” in print, audiovisual and social media and heralded new efforts to promote children’s programs that uphold national and family values.
It is clear that his image is important to him and so is controlling the message and western media’s sea-blindness has played right into his hands.
Preventing all warships from all nations from entering the Black Sea allowed him to receive praise from world leaders while benefiting his friends in Russia (He undoubtedly hopes the world sees him as a peacemaker worthy of a Nobel Prize for this action). His sale of drones to Ukraine was praised by dozens of large media outlets but pales in comparison to the shiploads of war supplies Putin can still sail through Turkish waters.
He has exhibited a strong desire for positive press and, in this conflict, he has met the mark, but only because the media is blind to the true implications of his actions.
If Zelenskyy can shine a light on the true cost of banning NATO warships from the Black Sea, then maybe the media – along with smart influential national security experts with strong followings like Admiral Stavridis – can apply enough pressure on both Putin and Erdogan to force change.
Much of Mariupol has already fallen and Putin is free to send ships through the Sea of Azov and up rivers and canals into Ukraine’s interiors. This will potentially solve his well-publicized military resupply problems. No Ukraine artillery in Mariupol means Russia is free to increase exports to bolster foreign currency reserves. Much has already been lost but the fight for the Black Sea’s most important fight, Odesa, is just beginning and it is not too late to help protect Romania from Russian incursion by dispatching NATO destroyers to the Black Sea or by lend/leasing Romania naval ships.
Before anything can change, however, Zelensky’s IO efforts need to be turned on Erdogan or the western media needs to wake to the importance of sealift or the Pentagon will have to negotiate a deal with Erdogan directly.
The simple fact is that without Turkey’s help a prolonged war and hunger could result, and Romania’s future will remain in peril.
For live updates on this crisis Follow Captain John Konrad on Twitter
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