Turkey is blocking two British Royal Navy mine-clearing ships bound for Ukraine, saying it will refuse passage through its waters to military vessels linked to Russia or Ukraine while both those countries are at war.
To help Ukraine defend its Black Sea borders from the Russian invasion, the UK said in mid-December it was sending the two mine-hunters to work with the Ukrainian Navy.
The transfer is part of an effort by both the UK and Norway to strengthen the Ukrainian naval forces.
On January 2, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s communication office said in a statement: “Our pertinent allies have been duly apprised that the mine-hunting ships donated to Ukraine by the United Kingdom will not be allowed to pass through the Turkish Straits to the Black Sea as long as the war continues.”
To support that stance, Ankara invokes the Montreux Convention, signed in 1936, which it says it has done since the Russian invasion began. The treaty allows the passage of cargo ships but not that of vessels considered military.
In March 2023, the Dutch Government also promised to deliver two mine-hunters by 2025.
The UK vessels are intended to be used to “help save lives at sea and open up vital export routes”, the British Government said, in addition to clearing mines to enable larger ships to pass safely.
The Black Sea is now feared to be littered with floating explosives and there have already been incidents of damage to cargo shipping across the region.
Russia has repeatedly been criticised by Britain for allegedly considering setting up sea mines in the humanitarian corridor created in the Black Sea to aid in grain exports to civilians.
Turkey claims to have notified its NATO allies of what it said is its international duty to prevent ships from either “belligerent party” in the conflict from using the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits.
According to the presidential office, Turkey has “impartially and meticulously” enforced the Montreux Convention, which regulates marine trade through the Turkish straits, to stop any escalation of confrontation in the Black Sea.
The final say on all warship transit appears to remain with Ankara – if Turkey feels there is a danger of becoming drawn into the fighting.
The country has been trying to maintain a difficult balancing act between its NATO allies, Ukraine and Russia since the Moscow-backed aggression began in February 2022.