No NATO Ukraine No-Fly Zone, But NATO's Turkey Sets Russian No-Sail Zone

Ukraine on Thursday asked Turkey to block Russian warships from passing through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits, the only access points to the Black Sea.

Turkey, a NATO member with close ties to Russia, initially denied the request, citing international law. When the situation in Ukraine escalated to war, however, Turkey affirmed that provided legal grounds to block the waterway.

On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned all countries not to try to bring warships through the straits.

"We warned all countries whether they are Black Sea powers or not to not pass warships," Cavusoglu said, according to Turkey's Anadolu Agency.

The top Turkish diplomat had said on Friday that due to a clause in an international pact, Turkey did not have the right to block Russian ships from accessing the Black Sea, Reuters reported.

The 1936 Montreux Convention gives Turkey certain control over the passage of warships from the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits, with specific peacetime and wartime distinctions.

Turkey's foreign minister initially held that Russia maintains the right, under a clause in the Convention, to return ships to their home base, which in this case is the Black Sea.

But the escalation of the Ukraine conflict to war status established a legal distinction that paved the way for Ankara to potentially ban Russian warships from entering the Black Sea, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Under the 1936 Convention, Ankara can legally block some warships from countries involved in the conflict from accessing the sea.

If Turkey is a party to the war, or considers itself to be imminently threatened by the war, the Convention grants Turkey the right to shut down the straits to the passage of warships, CNN reported.

The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that Foreign Minister Cavusoglu had officially declared the escalation to war.

"We came to the conclusion that the situation in Ukraine has transformed into a war," Cavusoglu said. "We will implement all articles of Montreux transparently."

The convention has long drawn the ire of Moscow, and the Soviet Union's opposition to Turkey's position led to the Turkish Straits crisis that ran through World War II into the beginning of the Cold War, leading Ankara to first drop its non-aligned status and join NATO 70 years ago.

And while Russia-Turkey relations are still plagued by tensions, especially over their opposing positions on conflicts in Libya, Syria and the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, they have established strategic ties demonstrated by frequent contacts between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as Ankara's acquisition of Russia's S-400 surface-to-air missile system despite U.S. sanctions.

Turkey has maintained good relations with Ukraine as well, providing it with the Bayraktar TB2 drones that have seen combat against Russian formations in the war in Ukraine.

The decision to implement the Montreux Convention, however, threatens a potential direct confrontation between the Russian and Turkish militaries.

Blocking Russian warships from passing through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits effectively establishes a no-sail zone, while Ukraine's request to NATO for a no-fly zone remains denied. Such a move could lead to an effective blockade against Russia, pitting Moscow directly against a NATO power in a situation at sea that those concerned about a no-fly zone have sought to avoid in the air.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly urged NATO countries to "close the skies," an apparent request for a no-fly zone, Vox reported Sunday.

The call was reiterated by Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties, which called for additional foreign backing for Ukraine's armed forces in their fight against Russia.

"All the assistance that international partners can provide is significantly important for Ukraine," the center said in a statement shared with Newsweek on Sunday. "Now, for security and freedom, in order to bring the war closer to an end, Ukraine NEEDS MOST from NATO a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This will help us protect ourselves from Russian warplanes, drones and missiles."

But Olga Oliker, the International Crisis Group's director for Europe and Central Asia, told Vox that establishing a no-fly zone would be catastrophic.

"A No Fly Zone is not a magical umbrella that prevents planes flying in a given area," Oliker said. "It's a decision to shoot at planes that fly in a given area."

"To put in a no fly zone is to go to war," she added.

The U.S. and Russia control 90% of the world's nuclear weapons between them.
The establishment of a no-fly zone in Ukraine in which the U.S. participated would put the superpowers in dangerous proximity to each other, further adding to crisis that seems to escalate daily.

The U.S. military's European Command has declined to weigh in on whether or not such a measure is an option.

"As a matter of operational security, we do not discuss future operations or deployments," U.S. European Command Public Affairs spokesperson Scott Ghiringhelli told Newsweek. "We will remain in close coordination with our Allies and Partners as we continue to review our force posture, as we make decisions regarding potential movement of forces into Europe, and as we review the disposition of U.S. forces on the continent."

He said U.S. forces were positioned to deter any aggression or respond to one if necessary.

"As part of our commitment to upholding the principles of the rules-based international order and to the security of our NATO Allies, the United States maintains significant combat-capable forces in Europe," Ghiringhelli added. "These forward-deployed forces help to deter aggression and if deterrence fails, stand shoulder to shoulder with our Allies to maintain security and stability in Europe."

But Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has reiterated the position of the Biden administration that American forces will not be put on the ground or in the air over Ukraine, and would not participate in a no-fly zone.

However, Turkey's decision presents a potentially new maritime dimension to the issue.

Turkey's announced interdiction of Russian warships places them in a situation where its naval and air forces are likely to be in direct and hostile contact with those of Russia, increasing the chances of a major incident occurring.

In the event that Turkey's forces were attacked by Russian warships, as a member of NATO, that would likely trigger an automatic application of Article 5, which stipulates that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all NATO countries, which then would be bound to come to Turkey's defense.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled he was willing to take to retaliate against any outside attempts to intervene in the "special military operation" he ordered in Ukraine.

"Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia's response will be immediate and will lead to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history," Putin warned at the time.

"We are ready for any development of events," he added. "All the necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard."

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"We warned all countries whether they are Black Sea powers or not to not pass warships," the Turkish Foreign Minister announced on Monday. In this photo, soldiers stand at attention as Russian Navy warships take part in the Navy Day parade in St. Petersburg on July 25, 2021. Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images