Author: Igor Delanoë is Deputy Director of the Franco-Russian Observatory in Moscow.

The Azov sea under a treaty signed in 2003 is a Russo-Ukrainian condominium and both countries’ merchant and naval vessels have total freedom of passage through the Kerch Strait. But with the reintegration of Crimea under the Russian Federation, Russia gained de facto access to the Azov Sea, since it now controls both shores of the Kerch Strait. Its total superiority over Ukraine effectively makes the Azov Sea a Russian lake. The bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia has strengthened Russian control of the Kerch Strait. The crisis last November happened because Ukraine sought to challenge Russian’s rules of passage. For Russia, the incident was a matter of reasserting its sovereignty over Crimea and the Kerch Strait, and reminding Ukraine that it was pointless trying to challenge its rules of passage.

The November incident is a sign of the growth of Russia’s military presence in the Black Sea since the reunification of Crimea. The Kerch Strait and Azov Sea are part of a strategic corridor linking the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea via the Volga-Don Canal. They are increasingly used by small Russian warships based in the Caspian Sea, some of which venture into the eastern Mediterranean. Since reunification, Crimea has returned to its traditional role as a forward base on Russia’s southern borders. Russia has fortified it, deploying anti-aircraft and anti-ship defenses, including S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and Bastion coastal batteries, as well as electronic warfare systems. The combination of these weapons, able to intercept fighter-bombers or ballistic missiles has created in the Black Sea an area of several hundred square kilometres where NATO forces’s ability to operate is restricted. Russia’s deployment of new frigates, corvettes and diesel submarines, all capable of launching Kalibr cruise missiles gives it the means to inflict damage on any adversary that might attack its interests.

Russia’s naval strength is all the greater here because the activities of non-Black Sea navies are restricted by the 1936 Montreux convention, which gives Turkey control of the Bosphorous and Dardanelles straits. Turkey must guarantee free passage to merchant shipping, but may restrict the passage of naval vessels, especially in wartime. The treaty also limits the aggregate tonnage of non-Black Sea naval vessels passing through the straits, and the time they can spend in the Black Sea (article 18). Turkey has insisted that the Montreux convention be observed to the letter; the reunification of Crimea to Russia and Russia’s increased military presence have not changed its position. Both Ankara and Moscow realize that any challenge to the convention would disadvantage them by opening the way for external powers to intervene in regional naval affairs. This would compromise the arrangements that have made the Black Sea a Russo-Turkish security condominium since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Turkey has always taken care that the Black Sea should not become a conflict zone between Russia and NATO by maintaining a balance between its position as a member of NATO and a neighbor of Russia. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania to NATO in 2004 has not fundamentally changed Turkey’s approach since their naval strength is marginal. Turkey won’t take any action that could risk its Black Sea condominium with Russia. Turkey’s solid relationship with Russia on energy, strengthened by the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and Rosatom’s construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power station, at Akkuyu on the south coast, act as a safety net. The main strength of Russia and Turkey’s partnership is their ability to focus on shared process, rather than vainly seeking shared strategic objectives. They are geopolitical competitors cooperating on a limited and selective basis in the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Middle East that allows them to channel competition.

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