Russia stops defence cooperation with Turkey

Could Turkey close its straits for Russia? Source: Vasily Batanov / RIA Novosti

Could Turkey close its straits for Russia? Source: Vasily Batanov / RIA Novosti

Russia’s Defence Ministry terminated all cooperation with the Turkish armed forces days after Turkey's air force shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber along the Syria-Turkey border. What are the potential implications of this break in military relations between the two countries?

Bilateral ties between Russia and Turkey have gone sharply southwards since a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on November 24 for allegedly having crossed the Syrian-Turkish border. Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to answer phone calls from his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Moscow has introduced a visa regime for Turkish citizens along with a package of economic sanctions against Ankara.

The day on which the aircraft was downed Lieutenant General Sergei Rutskoi from the General Command stated that military contacts with Turkey would be terminated. Moscow recalled its naval representative responsible for coordinating the activities of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and the Turkish navy. The hotline between the two countries aimed at preventing air incidents during anti-terrorist operations has also been switched off.

A century of relations

Russia’s cooperation with Turkey began almost 100 years ago in 1920, when the founder of the Turkish Republic Kemal Ataturk sought Soviet Russia’s assistance and established diplomatic relations. The Soviet Union, which was then in the throes of a civil war, gave the Turkish government 10 million gold rubles and sent Turkey military advisers, weapons and military technology.

Post-Soviet Russia began cooperation with Turkey in 1992 by selling Ankara weapons worth around $100 million, including BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers, the Mi-8MTSh/Mi-17 multipurpose helicopters, Kalashnikov machineguns and submachine guns, Dragunov rifles, multiple rocket launchers and much more. Russia provides maintenance services for this technology.

Russia and Turkey's militaries have held consultations and carried out joint exercises, with the two countries even creating a joint Black Sea Navy called BlackSeaFor, tasked with conducting search and reconnaissance operations and monitoring the ecological situation.

NATO will not intervene

According to Lieutenant General Leonid Ivashov, president of the Moscow-based Academy of Geopolitical Problems, Russia does not need to fear Turkey asking NATO to deploy additional anti-aircraft defence systems on its territory or to give it military support, even though tensions will continue to rise.

"NATO's last council on an ambassadorial level, convened at Turkey's behest, refused to support it and there wasn’t even a general statement, which NATO usually provides. Stoltenberg spoke for himself, which means that NATO's European members are not burning with desire to help Turkey," he said.

According to Ivashov, Germany and France are unlikely to get involved in the developing Russian-Turkish conflict. France has even begun a rapprochement with Russia after the Turkish attack on the Su-24.

"Now Russia just has to increase consultations with European countries in a bilateral format," he said.

Inviolability of the Turkish Straits

However, the interruption of cooperation with the Turkish military carries a certain risk where the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits in the Black Sea are concerned. Nations wishing to use the straits linking the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, which are entirely in Turkish territory, are required to follow the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. The convention, which was signed on July 20, 1936 in the Swiss town of Montreux and is regularly extended, has a 20-year tenure.

In times of peace, the convention limits the passage of military ships belonging to non-Black Sea countries through the straits. When entering the waters, ships are limited to a weight of 15,000 tons. Additionally, there are limits on the collective tonnage of vessels present in the Black Sea: 30,000 tons for all non-Black Sea countries together. There is also a limit on the time that a ship can spend in the waters: three weeks.

In many cases countries with Black Sea coastlines are free to send their submarines through the straits, as well as large ships without a weight limit, as long as they abide by certain conditions stipulated in the convention, the responsibility for maintaining which lies with Turkey.

If Turkey finds itself at war or threatened by war, it has the right to permit or forbid any military vessels to pass through the straits. If Turkey is not participating in the war, then the straits are closed to ships belonging to the warring countries.

"The conditions of maritime navigation through the Black Sea straits are regulated by international law, by the Montreux Convention, and obviously here we count on the constancy of the norms concerning free navigation through the Black Sea straits," said Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov on Nov. 27.

According to Lieutenant General Yevgeny Buzhinsky, former head of the international treaty directorate at the Russian Defense Ministry, Turkey is "very vigilant about the implementation of the Montreux Convention."

"I don’t think that Turkey, even in these tense conditions with Russia, will want to violate the Montreux Convention, because if Turkey begins violating it, it will be very difficult to restore it. We can ask the question: can Turkey close the straits to Russia? Theoretically, yes. But to do so, it must declare war on Russia, since the Montreux Convention states that only in the event of a war can Turkey close the straits," said Buzhinsky.

First published in Russian in

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