In what may be a sign of escalating tensions, Russia and NATO engaged in a war of words last week after the Russians claimed they had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a UK destroyer, which they claim had entered Russian waters near Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. British authorities denied the claim, saying the Russians were undertaking a “gunnery exercise” and that to their knowledge no bombs were dropped near their destroyer that was sailing outside of Russian territorial waters on its way to Georgia. At the time of the purported incident, the British vessel was participating in NATO exercises.
The accusations and denials are part of a larger shift in international security dynamics, with the U.S. and NATO turning their attention away from the conflicts generated by the war on terror and re-focusing on Russia and China. Russia, in turn, has been escalating its military presence in the Black Sea. Is this key body of water returning to its volatile Cold War dynamics?
Adnan R. Khan: Can we start with a little backgrounder on the history of Turkish and Russian interests in the Black Sea. Why is the Black Sea so important for Russia?
Ilter Turan: Historically, the Black Sea has been an area of contention between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The collapse of both at around the same time at the end of the First World War made it possible to call a temporary halt to this competitive relationship. Then, as the Soviet Union became more assertive during WWII, Stalin wanted to revise the Montreux Convention that gave sovereignty over the Turkish straits to Turkey. Stalin’s demand caused extreme concern in Turkey, constituting a major reason that prompted the Turkish government to join NATO.
Adnan R. Khan: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the looming question has been what kind of a world order will emerge next. Some people have argued that we’re headed for a multipolar order but the most recent shift in the U.S. military posture suggests a re-focus on Russia. Does this mean a return to a Cold War-like bipolarity?
Ilter Turan: There is speculation that we might be going back to a bipolar order. •bviously, it’s not the old order because the main adversary to the U.S. is, in addition to Russia, China. Still, Russia’s expansionist tendencies are a major concern for both the U.S. and the EU. It has been the major driving force behind recent NATO efforts of reconstitute itself as an alliance as in the times of the Cold War, to counter aggressive Russian policies. The Cold War doctrine of containment was not simply to stop Russian expansion but also to push the Soviet Union back. We see echoes of that in the current push to make the EU a more important actor in the Black Sea region and in the increasing activity of American and British navies in the area. It seems that a Cold War-type relationship with Russia is coming back.
Adnan R. Khan: The Black Sea is becoming crowded with much more advanced and deadly naval vessels than the Montreux agreement envisioned. Is the Convention working as it should or does it need an overhaul?
Ilter Turan: I think the basics of the Montreux Convention are still valid. If you look at some of the details, some of the weapons technology, for example, has changed and may not correspond anymore to what is specified in the Convention. But the basic spirit of the agreement, i.e. ensuring safe passage of commercial traffic through the Turkish Straits, regulating the passage of naval vessels aiming that no littoral state feels threatened is observed. Turkey has been very careful in implementing the Montreux rules to achieve these ends. I don’t think changing the treaty is necessary because it is serving its purpose well. An attempt at modification would give an opportunity to other nations with multiple intentions to demand that they should have a say in shaping the new document. The current convention does not include some of the important countries that are now expressing a strong interest in greater military access to the Black Sea. From a Turkish perspective, it is totally undesirable and unnecessary revise Montreux. It is equally important for Turkey, however, to ensure that the spirit of the convention is observed.
Adnan R. Khan: Cycling back to this incident between the UK and Russia, the Black Sea does seem to be a crowded space these days. Are you concerned about the potential for an escalatory cycle developing?
Ilter Turan: Of course, with so many naval vessels, the chances for unwanted and unintended incidents may go up. What happened in this particular instance, however, is not an accident but a deliberate act on the part of the British vessel to sail in Crimean territorial waters to show that the Russian annexation of Crimea is not recognized. Although the sides are claiming rather different scenarios, it is clear that the Russians tried to drive the British vessel away without creating a major incident. I do not think that this incident in itself constitutes a reason to raise any alarm bells but it is certainly a reminder that the Black Sea region is again becoming an important geopolitical hotspot.
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