U.S. Navy sends diplomatic notice to Turkey for warships en route to Black Sea

(Updates with comments from Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko)

The United States Navy will be sending two warships into the Black Sea to remain there until May 4, according to a notice sent to Turkish authorities, state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Friday, citing diplomatic sources.

The notice was sent 15 days in advance, the sources said, as per the Montreux Convention regarding the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits. The timing coincides with the phone call made between Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar his U.S. counterpart Lloyd James Austin on April 1.

The readout, provided by Austin's Twitter account, underlined that the Pentagon chief thanked Turkey for its “coordination with USS Monterey and USS Thomas Hudner in recent exercises in the Black Sea.” According to same Pentagon readout, Austin and Akar also “discussed the instability along NATO’s Eastern and Southern Flanks, including challenges posed by Russia”. The Turkish readout on the call at the time did not make any reference to Russian challenges, nor Black Sea exercises. 

A Pentagon official told CNN on Thursday that the United States was considering a new deployment of warships, which would signal to Moscow that Washington was watching the increased Russian military presence on Ukraine’s southern border on the Black Sea.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko expressed concern for increased activity by states that don’t have borders to the Black Sea, Anadolu reported.

Grushko also pointed to increased NATO warship activity in the Black Sea, and said neighbours in the region were responsible for security therein.

Earlier in the day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the phone, according to Anadolu.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki had called Russia's actions “deeply concerning” on Thursday.

As the crisis between Moscow and Kiev continues, on Tuesday NATO added Ukrainian to the language options on its official website.

While tensions continue to rise over Russian activity along Ukraine’s borders, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskiy has relayed to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg the country’s wish to join NATO in an earlier phone call.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitriy Peskov said such an event would “make matters worse”, urging Ukraine to not disregard what its people thought.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, stressing that it was “crucial for countries with EU aspirations to align with EU decisions on foreign policy issues”, Dendias said in a tweet on Thursday.

“Translation: Stop playing into Turkey's hands if you want our support,” said analyst Yannis Koutsomitis.

Dendias’s comments come ahead of Zelenskiy’s visit to Ankara on Saturday, for the 9th Ukraine-Turkey High Level Strategic Council meeting, as announced by Turkey’s Communications Directorate.

Ukraine bought several Turkish drones and control stations for the drones last year, while signing contracts for several more and an agreement for the manufacture of Turkish drones.

“Alright, by now we've probably figured out the matter here,” journalist Ahu Özyurt wrote in a tweet, accompanied by a hashtag that read, “admirals are our honour”.

The Montreux, and thus the passage of military vessels from Turkish straits, has shaped the public agenda since Saturday, when 103 retired admirals issued a declaration denouncing the Turkish government for opening the convention up for discussion. Upon Parliamentary Speaker Mustafa Şentop bringing up the matter in an interview, the retired members of the navy said Montreux was Turkey's “single biggest diplomatic victory”, and that it ensured peace in the Black Sea.

The 1936 convention limits the time vessels belonging to non-Black Sea states can remain in the northern waters to 21 days, as well as the type and number of vessels that can pass through at times of both peace and war. 

There have been discussions in Turkey on whether Kanal Istanbul, an artificial waterway project championed by Erdoğan himself, would be covered by the Montreux Convention, which claims jurisdiction over “the straits”, and doesn't cite any specific waterway by name, natural or artificial. Critics say the canal may allow non-Black Sea states to bypass restrictions, rendering the convention meaningless and threatening the delicate peace in the region.

Fourteen admirals have been charged with conspiracy to commit crimes against the constitutional order over the declaration, and 10 of them have already been taken into custody. Government officials maintain the declaration was akin to calling for a military coup.