Turkey’s Role as Guardian of the Straits Is Under Scrutiny

Turkey, which covers NATO’s south-eastern European flank has been cast in a particularly difficult situation by the invasion of Ukraine given its close ties to both Kyiv and aggressor Russia, in addition to its unique geographic position.

With the international campaign against the Russian aggression against Ukraine gathering pace, Turkey has a rather unique role to play. Not only have the battle-hardened troops of the Mediterranean country combat experience in conflicts against Russia. Arguably even more important is the role as guardian of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy yesterday thanked his counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan for banning the passage of Russian warships to the Black Sea. This statement may have had a dual purpose given that Turkey so far hasn’t publicly stated its intent to close the passage to warships.

Turkey Has Decided to Call It a War

The Montreux convention of 1936 allows Turkey to bar navy vessels from entering the Black Sea in times of war, which explains the significance of how Turkey defines the situation in Ukraine today. On Sunday evening, the ministry of foreign affairs stated that the situation indeed was one of war, which triggers the application of article 19 of the Montreux Convention, giving Turkey the power to stop warships under certain conditions.

“Turkey will observe the status of the Turkish Straits strictly,” said Professor Haldun Yalcinkaya. Yalcinkaya, who is head of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at TOBB University in Ankara and an expert in military affairs, adding that the country may well bar both fleets from Russia and the alliance to enter the Black Sea region.

Heavy Blow to Peace in the Region

It is obviously a key concern of Ukraine to prevent a stronger Russian fleet from entering the region, because its own naval forces are known to be comparatively weak. Added to that the long coast which is difficult to defend against a strong navy such as Russia’s. Earlier in February, Turkey had to allow Russian warships to sail through the straits due to convention’s provisions.

Turkey has joined other nations in condemning the invasion and said it was a heavy blow to regional peace and stability.

Multiple Challenges Facing Turkey

It is worth keeping in mind the rather special relationship that Turkey has with Russia. While being pitched against each other in countries such as Syria and Libya, Turkey at the same time bought the Russian missile defense system S400 in 2017. And, even more poignant perhaps was the delivery of Bayraktar drones to Ukraine.

Put together, Turkey’s position in this mess is challenging from several perspectives:
– Turkey is a key NATO ally with a history of participation in NATO operations
– it has good relations with Ukraine and Russia
– it has bought high-tech weaponry from Russia and delivered other high-tech weapons to Ukraine
– it is the guardian of the straits, which are key for the control of the Black Sea
– it is in proxy conflict with Russia in Syria and Libya
– it’s economy is set to be hit by an end of Russian tourism at a time when the economy is bleeding from huge energy costs and a surge in inflation.

The reaction of Turkey is well worth watching and it is worthwhile for the EU and NATO to keep the pressure that Turkey currently feels from many fronts in mind. It wouldn’t come as a great surprise if the years of extreme tension between those sides are about to ease substantially.

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