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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Turkey’s Historical Place in the Black Sea

Article by: Meghan Hall

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the Institute for Regional and International Studies National Resource Center (IRIS NRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Turkey’s Historical Affiliation

Turkey has occupied a truly unique position at the crossroads of East and West for millennia. Today, it boasts the second-biggest armed forces in NATO and has been the ultimate arbiter for other nation’s access to the Black Sea since 1936. Why that that is the case and where the country stands today is what we shall explore now.

After finding itself on the losing side of World War I in 1918 and the ensuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s influence over its neighbourhood became drastically reduced. It lost control of vast swaths of territory and over Black Sea shipping under the Treaty of Lausanne, which gave regulatory control over the Bosporus Strait to the League of Nations in 1923. However, Turkey’s fortunes changed just a few years later when it became the primary beneficiary of the 1936 Montreux Convention. The convention states that Turkey would receive a privileged position in the Black Sea region by becoming the neutral arbiter that determines access to the Bosporus and Dardanelles, critical straits connecting the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, and therefore the Black Sea to the rest of the world. Little known is the fact that this essentially gave international backing to the fortification Turkey had already been secretly implementing in the straits, cementing its de-facto authority prior to its de-jure authority.

Turkey’s Tilt to the West

Since the 1940s Turkey has worked to strengthen its connections to Western nations, notably through the little-known American and Turkish intelligence partnership during the Cold War. This included multiple American-run signals intelligence (SIGINT) posts on the Turkish Black Sea coast and the use of Turkish military bases for air reconnaissance missions over the then USSR. The latter primarily served to monitor the Soviet’s development of nuclear weapons. This alliance with the US from the beginning of the Cold War swiftly led to Turkey joining NATO in 1953, just 4 years after NATO was founded. Despite a firm embeddedness in NATO to this day, Turkey also regularly pursues its own military and procurement strategy independent of the alliance.

The Geopolitics of the Black Sea

A key driver behind Turkey’s integration with NATO was the importance of establishing security in the Black Sea. Throughout history, Turkey has navigated global interconnections in order to entrench its authority over this body of water. The ability to benefit from the economic trade through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, control foreign military presence in these waters, and utilize the available natural resources, have been critical in defining Turkey’s defense for centuries. These priorities continue today, as highlighted in a 2022 article for GMF by Şaban Kardaş: “maintaining the precarious balance in the Black Sea maritime domain” is “a sacrosanct pillar of Turkey’s grand strategy.” Although the current situation may not be as precarious as the Cold War, Russia’s actions in Georgia and Crimea have reaffirmed Turkey’s desire to regulate the Black Sea and preserve balance within the region; even prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The Black Sea is also deeply important to Russia: The number of NATO members states bordering the Black Sea has tripled from one (Turkey) to three (Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria) since 2004. Of particular note is the importance -for both Russia and Turkey- of energy transport through the Sea, such as pipelines like BlueStream and TurkStream, which carry natural gas from Russia to Turkey (NS Energy), and in the case of the latter onwards into the EU.

Responses to Russia

The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia saw Turkish allegiances tend to lean towards Russia while formally remaining neutral. This was most notable by Turkey’s strict enforcement of the Montreux Convention at the expense of American aid ships that wanted to enter the Black Sea through the Bosporus. Albeit being a firm supporter of Georgian and Ukrainian sovereignty, the 2008 occupation of South Ossetia in Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Donbas did not provoke a strong reaction from Turkey’s leadership. This balancing act is remarkable as Russia’s annexation of Crimea threatened Turkey’s authority as a regulator of Black Sea cooperation and peace. However, Turkey’s strategic autonomy is somewhat limited by its disproportionate dependence on Russian oil and gas. Turkish President Erdogan did condemn this annexation and expressed support for Crimea to be returned to Ukraine. Moreover, Turkey has historic and cultural ties with the ethnic group of the Crimean Tatars, who represent a Muslim minority in Russia (PBS). The language, culture, and freedom of expression of the Tatars has become heavily curtailed under the Russian occupation of Crimea, a development Turkey condemns.

The Future of Turkey’s Role in NATO

Kardas from the German Marshall Fund points out that the “disunited transatlantic community [prior to 2022] reinforced a major characteristic of Turkey’s strategic culture, namely its risk-averse approach to volatile contingencies.” After the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion attempt of Ukraine, Turkey closed off the Bosporus to all military ships of countries that did not border the Black Sea and was integral in arranging the grain deals between Russia and Ukraine that allowed Ukrainian ships to export grain through the Bosporus. Nevertheless, although Turkey remains formally neutral on Ukraine, its actions go beyond a simple mediator and it has provided offensive weapons to Ukraine. Turkey and its predecessor states have for centuries been a bedrock actor in the Black Sea region and Turkish regional policy needs to maneuver complex East-West relations to further its bargaining power with not only NATO allies but an assertive Russia. The 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine thrust this power struggle into the limelight once again.

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