This article was published in Arab News on December 9, 2018.
Turkey’s dilemma should NATO challenge Russia
Tension is once again mounting between Russia and Ukraine, this time in the sea. On Nov. 25, the Russian navy fired at and seized a Ukrainian tugboat and two ships off the Crimean peninsula when they were on their way from Odessa to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian Security Agency (SBU) said that officers who were onboard were fulfilling counterintelligence operations for the Ukrainian navy in response to “psychological and physical pressure by the Russian intelligence services.”
The Russian Federal Security Service said the Ukrainian navy ships entered Russian territorial waters and that its forces fired at them. It is clear from these two statements that, in this contention, there are two truths, not one. The truth according to Russia is that Crimea joined the Russian Federation in 2014, so Moscow is entitled to prevent the entry of foreign vessels to its territorial waters. The truth according to Ukraine is that it does not recognize Crimea’s annexation by Russia, and therefore challenges Moscow’s claims on territorial waters.
Despite this, according to a statement by the SBU, Ukraine informed the Russian side beforehand that its ships would cross the Kerch Strait on their way to Mariupol. In light of this background, it is clear that the conflict stems from the efforts of both sides to make their respective claim prevail.
Under a 2003 treaty between Moscow and Kiev, the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are shared territorial waters. Mariupol and Berdyansk ports in the Sea of Azov are key to Ukraine’s exports of grain and metallurgical products and also for importing coal. However, according to Russia’s claims, transit through the Kerch Strait has to be carried out according to the general rules of international law that regulate “innocent passage.” This allows non-coastal countries’ ships to go through the territorial waters of a coastal country, but that the coastal country has the right to intercept the ship, inspect the cargo and refuse the passage if the cargo contains military equipment that could be used against the coastal country. Sometimes these inspections may turn into a full-fledged harassment.
To make things more complicated, Russia has built a bridge over the Kerch Strait, connecting the Russian mainland and the Crimean peninsula. It sent an empty tanker to anchor under the bridge, thus closing the strait to international traffic.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan contacted both his Russian and US counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Russia is eager to keep this conflict as a bilateral issue with Ukraine and wants to avoid the intervention of third counties.
The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe urged Russia and Ukraine to refrain from any further provocations. NATO strongly supported Ukraine and blamed Russia. British Admiral Lord West proposed sending a Royal Navy destroyer, but this proposal is more easily said than done because of the unique international status of the Black Sea. A convention signed in 1936 in Montreux, Switzerland, determines the sea’s status. According to the convention, there are limitations on the presence of the naval forces of non-riparian countries. It provides that non-Black Sea countries’ vessels present in the sea cannot exceed 45,000 tons. Furthermore, such vessels cannot stay more than 21 days in the Black Sea.
During the Russia-Georgia conflict of August 2008, the US wanted to send a military hospital vessel of 68,000 tons to the Georgian coast, but the Turkish government had to refuse passage through the Turkish straits on the grounds that this demand was not in compliance with the Montreux Convention.
Russia is eager to keep this conflict as a bilateral issue with Ukraine and wants to avoid the intervention of third countries.
The situation would become more complicated and a host of questions would arise if the Russia-Ukraine conflict leads to a major military clash with the involvement of NATO. Would Turkey send troops to fight Russia while they cooperate so closely in Syria? Would Romanian and Bulgarian vessels be counted, in terms of the Montreux Convention, as non-Black Sea vessels should they participate in a NATO-led operation against Russia?
NATO is also considering sending troops to Ukraine, not to fight with Russia, but to train Ukrainian troops. Would Turkey contribute troops to this? Russia would consider this as a hostile attitude, but there is nothing infringing international law in this case. It will be more a political conflict.
Furthermore, the Montreux Convention makes a distinction according to whether Turkey is at war or not. Article 20 says: “In time of war, Turkey being belligerent… the passage of warships (through the Turkish straits) shall be left to the discretion of the Turkish government.” Turkey will face a difficult choice because of this article. Would it open the straits to NATO countries’ vessels?