The Montreux Convention: Russia’s Perspective

January 28, 2020

“Canal İstanbul”, first introduced to the public as a “crazy project” by Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (JDP) Government, has become the subject of an increasingly heated discussion. Among the various aspects of the project currently debated are its environmental impact, the cost, huge private land purchases in the area and last but not least its implications for the Montreux Convention of 1936 regulating passage through the “Straits of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus comprised under the general term ‘Straits’ ”.

Until now, the Government has remained silent on this last issue. Only recently, President Erdogan said the Convention was only “binding” for the Turkish Straits and Canal Istanbul project would be “totally outside Montreux.” Responding to a question on whether warships will continue to cross the Turkish Straits under the limits set down by the Convention, he said: “We would find a solution for them.” He also questioned how 200,000-ton oil tankers could pass through the Bosphorus under the of freedom of passage and this could not be challenged under the Convention. “Some may not dare say this but I can. If there is a threat to our European and Asian shores then we would do whatever is necessary to prevent it.”

I am no historian, but I happen to be familiar with the implementation of the Montreux Convention. As a member of Turkey’s nowadays reviled “mon cher” school of traditional diplomacy, I was responsible, from 1982 to 1985, for the implementation of the Convention as Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Director for Maritime and Aviation affairs.

Two anecdotes before I move into the more serious historical background:

Around mid-February 1984, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the USSR Embassy in Ankara urgently came to see me. A vessel of the Soviet Navy was about to enter the Dardanelles but they had failed to send us the note informing us of its passage on February 9, because the death of Mr. Yuri Andropov, Secretary General of the Communist Party on that very day had caused a lot of confusion at the Embassy and the note was just left somewhere. Since this was indeed a special situation, I took his request with a positive view all the way up to the Foreign Minister and got his instructions to let the vessel pass. When I told my Soviet counterpart that the Minister decided accordingly, he was pleased but also shocked. He asked, “did this really go up to the Minister?” I responded, “yes, because this is how we implement the Montreux Convention, with honesty, strictest respect for the rules and transparency.”

Years later I was Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. Since the Under Secretary was away, I was also filling in for him. My colleagues informed me that a naval vessel of a major European ally was about to enter the Dardanelles but since they did not know the rules, they had not sent us a note and we had not informed the signatories of the Convention of its passage accordingly. With the experience of hindsight, I said that I was indeed sorry but “ignorance of the law does not constitute an excuse”. The vessel had to change course and head somewhere else.

As for the historical background to the Montreux Convention, particularly the Russian perspective, I would quote extensively from the remarkable works of historians.

For a start, even I can say that as Tsarist Russia emerged as European power its eyes were set on İstanbul and the Turkish Straits. Because, there was no way Russia could emerge as a naval power without easy access to the warm seas, that is the Mediterranean. Russia’s main fleet, naval base and shipyards were in the eastern Baltic frozen throughout the long winter season. Russia also had naval bases on the Pacific but supplying them was extremely difficult given the huge distances and lack of railway transport until much later.

For example, Russia’s indisputable defeat in the 1905 Japan-Russia war was also the result of its inability shore up its Pacific fleet.

The Black Sea Fleet was closer than the Baltic one, but according to the Treaty of Berlin (1878), Russia had no right to send warships through the Ottoman Straits, as London had just reminded St. Petersburg. So, in October 1904, the Tsar asked Admiral Rozhdestvensky, commander of the Baltic Fleet to relieve Port Arthur – by way of the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. It took Admiral Rozhdestvensky eight months to reach the Straits of Tsushima and by that time neither his vessels nor his crew were in shape to confront the Japanese.[i]

Moreover, “the question of the Straits concerned the security of Russia’s trade. What really worried the government was Russian exports, because on these depended the empire’s favourable trade balance and therefore the government’s entire strategy of economic development. In 1910, according to the Naval General Staff, 43.3 percent of Russian exports passed through Russia’s Black Sea ports, including the overwhelming majority of grain exports… The Ukrainian and Russian regions whose produces flowed through the Black Sea were the most dynamic regions of the empire’s economy.”[ii]

Thus, during the 1853-1856 Crimean War Russian exports suffered. During the 1877-1878 Turkish Russian war, Russian forces were at the gates of İstanbul but their exports again suffered. The Turkish-Italian war of 1911-1912 also caused great loss to Russia’s trade.

In the background to these lay, needless to say, Tsarist Russia’s Pan-Slavism ideology which drew inspiration from its history, ethno-religious identity and the desire to restore the Greek-Orthodox empire. Pan-Slavism had many advocates but also a few critics.

A century ago, Tsarina Catherine the Great had named his older grandson Alexander and the younger Konstantin, hoping that the latter would someday lead that Greek-Orthodox empire. When she met with Habsburg Emperor Joseph II in Mogilev in 1789, to discuss the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, she made no secret of her vision of Byzantium revived under her grandson’s rule.[iii]

After the invasion of Libya by Italy in 1911, the First Balkan War at the end of which the Ottoman empire lost most of its territories in Europe, the demise of the empire was a foregone conclusion. Decades and decades of decadent rule, failure to grasp let alone keep pace with political, economic, cultural and technological progress had brought the once mighty empire to a point where its territories and even its capital were up for grabs. Major powers were making plans for their claims on Ottoman territories and these were being taken up in intensive diplomatic talks among them. The beginning of the First World War only added momentum to the process. Tsarist Russia saw the War as the greatest opportunity to get hold of İstanbul and the Turkish Straits.

The negotiations regarding the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire among the three Entente allies took some time. Britain and France knew that they had to keep Russia in the war if they were to avoid a German victory on the western front. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey was forthcoming, largely ready with what his country would expect in return for yielding İstanbul and the Straits to Russia. French Foreign Minister Théophile Delcassé was more hesitant because of the prospect of Russian power expanding to the Mediterranean. Russian Foreign Minister Serge Sazonov played his cards well. At times he threatened the British and French Ambassadors with resigning his post unless Russia’s demands were met. What his threat implied was a separate peace with Germany by his more conservative successors.

Finally, “Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges Picot, after negotiating potential British and French spheres of influence in the Middle East, arrived in Petrograd in March 1916 to finalize Ottoman partition terms with Sazonov inside the Russian Foreign Ministry. In addition to the areas she had already conquered, the notorious Sazonov-Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916 gave Russia İstanbul and the Straits in case the allies won the war, fulfilling the ambition of every emperor since Catherine the Great.”[iv]

Nonetheless, the project failed.

Firstly, Allied defeat and withdrawal from Gallipoli in January 1916 proved that Turkey was not going to be written off so easily. Thus, Britain and France failed to join with Russia across the Mediterranean, the Straits and the Black Sea, preventing them from sending much needed supplies to their ally.  Whether Serge Sazonov would have been delighted to see that happen is far from certain. Because, that might have led Russia’s two allies to be less generous during the diplomatic process which ended with their acceptance of Russia’s demands in March 1916, only two months later.

Secondly, the Bolshevik revolution ended the tsarist rule, made public all the imperialistic secret agreements concluded with Britain and France and on March 3, 1918, in Brest-Litovsk, Russia’s new leaders signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria) ending its participation in the First World War.

Later, despite energetic lobbying at the Paris Peace Conference by such old-regime diplomats (as former foreign ministers) Izvolsky and Sazonov, the Whites simply had no diplomatic leverage, as they discovered when their request for a role in the postwar Ottoman Straits regime, pursuant to the old Sazonov-Sykes-Picot Agreement, was summarily dismissed.[v]

On June 28, 1919 the Treaty of Versailles bringing the First World War to an end was signed. A little more than a month before that, on May 19, 1919 Ataturk had landed in Samsun raising the flag for Turkey’s War of Independence. Roughly four years later, on July 24, 1923 the Lausanne Peace Treaty was signed sending the Treaty of Sèvres into the dustbin of history.

Part of the Lausanne Peace arrangement was the Convention Relating to the Régime of the Straits.

The Convention stipulated that the zones on both shores of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus and islands in the Sea of Marmara as well as the Aegean the islands of Samothrace, Lemnos, Imbros, Tenedos and Rabbit Islands would be demilitarized.

It also said:

“Complete freedom of passage by day and by night under any flag, without any formalities, or tax, or charge whatever, but subject to the following restrictions as to the total force:

The maximum force which any one Power may send through the Straits into the Black Sea is not to be greater than that of the most powerful fleet of the littoral Powers of the Black Sea existing in that sea at the time of passage; but with the proviso that the Powers reserve to themselves the right to send into the Black Sea, at all times and under all circumstances, a force of not more than three ships, of which no individual ship shall exceed 10,000 tons.”

The Lausanne Convention was a way out of the promises made by the Allies to Tsarist Russia. But particularly its terms of demilitarization limited Turkish sovereignty. Moreover, it had established a “Straits Commission” to oversee the implementation of the Convention.

As the clouds for another major confrontation started gathering in Europe, Turkey under the leadership of Ataturk asked for its revision. Thus, Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits was signed on July 20, 1936.

With the Montreux Convention the Straits Commission was abolished. Turkish sovereignty was restored. And, full Turkish military control over the Straits including their fortification was restored. The next day, Turkish daily Cumhuriyet’s headlines read: “Straits Convention Was Signed Yesterday Evening” “After 13 Years, a Retrieve to Last for Eternity”.

The Convention has specific a number of highly specific restrictions regarding the passage of naval vessels. For example, the maximum aggregate tonnage of all foreign naval forces which may be in course of transit through the Straits cannot exceed 15.000 tons.   These forces, however, must not comprise more than nine vessels. Black Sea Powers may send through the Straits capital ships of tonnage greater than 15.000 tons, on condition that these vessels pass through the Straits singly, escorted by not more than two destroyers.

In a nutshell, the Montreux Convention again struck a balance between the interests of the Soviet Union and foreign powers.

Today, former USSR allies Bulgaria and Romania are members of NATO and the EU. Ukraine and Georgia are independent states. In other words, the picture has changed. Yet, the fundamental reality remains: The Montreux Convention diligently implemented by Turkey has prevented the Black Sea from becoming an area of military confrontation even in the darkest days of the Cold War. Many Black Sea coastal states may have chosen different paths for themselves. But they too would probably prefer the status quo to new tensions.

For centuries, Russia’s dream was to have İstanbul, the Marmara region and the Straits. Even Joseph Stalin tried to revive Russia’s older claims which he later withdrew. This can no longer be the case. However, Russia would prefer the continuation of the Montreux order to avoid new uncertainties and challenges, particularly after the annexation of Crimea with Sevastopol home to its Black Sea Fleet.

Now, Turkey’s leadership is saying that the Canal İstanbul project will be realized no matter what, and it will be totally outside the Montreux Convention. Russian and Turkish leaders are meeting regularly at the highest levels. Is it imaginable that either one or the other side did not raise the issue? Absolutely impossible. Perhaps, they discussed it from the very beginning and we just do not know. Because, Russian diplomacy with its traditions, institutions, foresight and experience cannot possibly see the Canal İstanbul project as a non-issue. Americans are equally silent. And, we Turks do not even know the rationale underlying the project.

The JDP government has a particular interest in profit-yielding projects although they are not always on target. Is there a profit-making dimension to Canal İstanbul since the taxpayers would be investing billions and billions of dollars from country’s budget? Or, is the problem increased risks as a result of increased traffic and more hazardous material carried by tankers? Why is the public being kept in the dark?

This is not to say that today’s traffic through the Turkish Straits pose no risks. The official website of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs states the following under the heading “Note on the Turkish Straits”:

“In 1936 only 17 vessels passed daily through İstanbul Straits on average, while that figure stands around 50.000 today, which means 130 vessels on an average day. In other words, there has been an eight-fold increase in the number of vessels passing through the Turkish Straits since the signing of the Montreux Convention.

“Furthermore, Istanbul Strait is always busy with local traffic of fishing boats and other personal vessels using this waterway.

“In recent years, not only the frequency of vessel traffic has increased but also the size of vessels and the nature of cargoes have drastically changed. The ratio of oil, oil products and other dangerous and hazardous materials transported by large tankers has been rapidly increasing. Indeed, the number of oil tankers and other dangerous cargo vessels passing through the Strait of Istanbul rose by % 219 in the last years alone from 4248 in 1996 to 9303 in 2008. Similarly, the amount of hazardous cargo increased from 60.1 million tons in 1996 to 140.3 million tons in 2008. The figures for the Strait of Çanakkale are similar.”

The above figures do not include the daily intense maritime traffic in Istanbul (about 2500 shuttle boats), inter-city ferries, leisure crafts and fishing boats. More than 2.5 million people are involved every day in Istanbul alone in the maritime traffic for transport and other purposes.”[vi]

One of the lessons I have learnt during my years at the Foreign Ministry is “best is the enemy of good”. If there is a working international mechanism which reasonably serves your interests, do not play with it. The Montreux Convention is not only one such arrangement. It is a landmark diplomatic victory for Turkey reflecting the farsightedness of Ataturk and his colleagues who succeeded in bringing interested parties to the table at a time when Europe was heading again towards a major conflict.  If the current traffic level is raising the risks for İstanbul then we can start by addressing our concerns and the ways to eliminate them to the signatories of the Convention and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) before launching a crazy project. This we did in the past:

“… traffic separation schemes (TSS) were introduced in 1994 in the Straits in accordance with the provisions of the “International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea” (COLREG). The TSS were approved by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) General Assembly in November 1995.

“The Turkish Straits Regulations and the TSS aim at enhancing safety of navigation in the Turkish Straits and are in conformity with the relevant rules of international law and practice.

“Indeed, the Maritime Safety Committee of the IMO concluded at its 71st session, which was held in London on 19-28 May 1999, that the safety measures and the associated IMO Rules and Recommendations ‘have proven to be effective and successful…’ [vii]

In the light of the diplomatic and military history of the region, ambitions of major players, strategic rivalries and the evolution of the global landscape, one can say with certainty that putting the Montreux Convention at risk would have most negative political and security implications for Turkey. As a polarized and diplomatically isolated country with a more than fully loaded foreign policy agenda, this would be last thing we need.

Lastly, a suggestion to young Turkish diplomats: Please read the books referred to in the endnotes. They are more than worth your while.


[i] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, A New History, Profile Books, London, 2017, p.33.

[ii] Dominic Lieven, Towards the Flame, Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia, Penguin Books, 2016, pages 74-5.

[iii] Altay Cengizer, Adil Hafızanın Işığında Osmanlı’nın Son Savaşı, Doğan Kitap, 2014, pages 552-553.

[iv] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, A New History, Profile Books, London, 2017, p.74.

[v] Ibid. p 288.


[vii] Ibid.


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