Ukraine is increasing pressure on Turkey to ban Russian warships from the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, after a tweet from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on what he described as an “extremely important” closure.
Turkey has so far made no public statements on closing the straits to Russian warships, although President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke with Zelenskiy by phone earlier on Saturday, stating that Ankara is attempting to push for an immediate ceasefire.
Turkish officials have briefed no decision has been taken and the Russian news agency Interfax reported that Russia has received no official notification from the Turkish side about a closure.
Cutting off the Bosphorus and Dardanelles to Russian warships, preventing them from accessing the Black Sea, would be a significant move, not only in terms of cutting off long-term Russian support to its troops in Ukraine but also as a significant show of support to Ukraine.
A ban would prevent Russian warships normally permanently stationed around the world from sailing into the Black Sea to assist troops in Ukraine. However, Turkey is unable to prevent ships permanently stationed in the Black Sea from returning to their bases.
Shipping industry experts Lloyd’s List on Friday pointed out that commercial traffic through the Bosphorus has already slowed significantly in the past two days.
Turkey’s foreign ministry described the Russian invasion as “unacceptable” but described it as a “military operation” rather than a war, as doing so has implications for the Montreux convention.
The convention defines Turkish control of the straits as well as setting limits on the size, tonnage and duration of warships that can cross the straits, although warships belonging to countries bordering the Black Sea are normally able to pass unrestricted.
Foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Friday laid out Turkey’s position regarding the closure of the straits to the daily newspaper Hürriyet, stating that officials are discussing whether the conflict meets the definition of a war under the Montreux convention.
If officials decide that the definition has been met, this allows them to block warships from both Ukraine and Russia from passing through the straits, although the move is likely to be far more significant for the Russian side.
“Turkey can stop the passage of warships through the straits,” he said, adding that the convention stipulates that “if there is a demand for ships from the warring countries to return to their bases, then it must be allowed”.
“If we accept the state of war legally, this process will begin,” he added. “Secondly, if we accept the state of war we will prohibit the passage of warships... but even if we ban them, the Russians have such a right.”
Turkey maintains alliances with both Russia and Ukraine, and has so far emphasised its neutrality in the conflict despite selling its Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine and condemning Russia’s actions.
Turkey’s own Nato membership was put under pressure by its decision to buy Russia’s S400 missile defence system in 2017, although Erdoğan has recently sought to show how much Turkey values membership of the organisation, telling journalists that “Nato should have taken a more decisive step”.
The conflict in Ukraine and a rebuke from Russia should Turkey choose to close the straits is likely to heavily affect Turkey’s economy, already hobbled from a year where the lira lost half of its value and as rising energy costs spark protests and discontent. Turkey imports roughly a third of its natural gas supply from Russia, as well as much of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine.