A strategic 200-mile (320 km) natural waterway that joins the Black and Aegean seas.
Less than 30 percent of the length of the Straits—the Bosporus, starting in the Black Sea, and theDardanelles, ending in the Aegean—are natural straits; between them lies the inland Sea of Marmara. So long as the Black Sea was Ottoman and the only approaches flowed through the sultan's domain, he alone decided what ships might visit what parts of his realm. Foreign naval vessels did not enter Ottoman inland waters except on calls of courtesy or for repairs—unless in time of war they sought to breach the sultan's naval defenses. At the Straits and in the Ottoman-dominated river mouths of the Black Sea, attempting such a breach would have entailed over-whelming risks. The fact that at its southern end the Bosporus divided the imperial capital between Europe and Asia enhanced the Ottoman security planners' sensitivity to the movement of foreign vessels through the Straits. By the eighteen century, commercial ships arriving from the Mediterranean were permitted into the Sea of Marmara only as far as Constantinople. From that point north, all trade with Black Sea ports moved on Ottoman ships.
Once Russia captured primary river outlets to the Black Sea (such as the Dnieper and the Don—the latter connected to the Black Sea by the Sea of Azov), and thus could validly claim riparian status, the situation changed. The Treaty of Kuçuk Kaynarja, which in 1774 ended a six-year war with the Ottoman Empire, opened all water lanes with outlets on the Black Sea to Russian commercial shipping. The Ottomans subsequently bestowed the privilege of free merchant navigation through the Straits upon other seafaring powers of Europe and even the United States. This was done by separate act for any Western state enjoying capitulatory (extraterritorial) privileges that requested it. The Ottoman government in 1822 notified all powers that "the passage of the Bosporus is closed to the ships of nations to whom the Porte never accorded the right of entry to . . . [the Black] sea." Not until the Treaty of Paris in 1856 was commercial freedom conferred on all flags.
The transit of war vessels was also resolved by international agreement, starting with the Straits Convention, signed in London on 13 July 1841. Article 1 expressed the sultan's firm resolve "to maintain . . . the principle . . . [whereby] it has . . . been prohibited for the Ships of War of Foreign Powers to enter the Straits . . .; and . . . so long as the Porte is at peace . . . [to] admit no foreign Ship of War into the said Straits." In the same article the powers of Europe pledged "to respect this determination." In Article 2 the sultan reserved "to himself . . . to deliver f[e]rmans [edicts] of passage for light vessels under flag of war . . . employed . . . in the services of the Missions of foreign powers."
The defeat in World War I of the Ottoman imperial government ended the 1841 agreement. Under the Armistice of Mudros in 1918, the victors (chiefly Britain, France, and Italy) imposed a naval occupation on the Sublime Porte, and in 1922 on its successor, the Republic of Turkey. The powers of Europe assumed the role of Straits traffic regulator until the ratification in 1923 of the Treaty of Lausanne. For a dozen years, an International Straits Commission oversaw the flow of all Straits traffic. In 1936 the Montreux Convention restored sovereign authority to the Republic of Turkey.
In conferences with Britain and the United States at Tehran in 1943 and at Yalta in 1945, the Soviet Union declared the Montreux Convention prejudicial to its security interests. It acknowledged that in wartime Turkey had acted with goodwill in defense of the Straits. Nevertheless, Moscow demanded revision of the 1936 convention to assure its warships free movement through the Straits at all times.
When the issue was reviewed at Potsdam in mid-1945, the Western powers agreed that each of the Big Three would hold talks with the Turkish government on revising the 1936 instrument "to meet present-day conditions." After a year of diplomatic exchanges, Moscow's insistence on sharing in the defense of the Straits led to a stalemate in August 1946. The Soviet Union refused to modify its demands, and Britain and the United States gave full support to Turkey. Seven months later, President Harry Truman promulgated the U.S. strategy for the global containment of the Soviet Union "and international communism" thereby marking the formal start of the Cold War.
see also capitulations; lausanne, treaty of (1923); montreux convention (1936); straits convention.
Hurewitz, J. C. "Russia and the Turkish Straits: A Revaluation of the Origins of the Problem." World Politics (July 1962): 605–632.
Shotwell, James Thomson, and Deák, Francis. Turkey at the Straits: A Short History. New York: Macmillan, 1940.
j. c. hurewitz