No. 697
Memorandum by the Chairman of the President’s War Relief Control Board (Davies)1

Russian-Turkish Relations and the Straits

Ever since Peter the Great visited Germany, Holland, and England in 1697, Russian leaders have recognized the need for ice-free ports. Russia has tried to control the Straits of the Bosporus and Dardanelles, doors to the Black Sea, and to acquire Constantinople because of significance to the Greek Orthodox Faith.

Turkish rulers, since the days of Sultan Ibrahim I in 1640 when a famine was caused by Venetian ships closing the Dardanelles for the first time, have manoeuvred by wars and alliances to prevent Russia from achieving her aims. This “Eastern Question” which occupied so much of the political history of the 19th century can be summed up as the result of the conflict of the following desires: Russia’s and Austria’s desire to have access by water to the Mediterranean; the British desire to prevent Turkey from obstructing the route to India; the desire of the non-Muslim Christians in Turkey for independence.

Nineteenth century differences began in 1798. Napoleon attacked Egypt as a move against England’s route to India. Russia joined Turkey and England. Napoleon was defeated in Syria. The French fleet was destroyed by Nelson at Aboukir. The Russian and Turkish fleets captured the Ionian Island[s]. Peace was concluded in 1802.2

The hospodars of Walachia and Moldavia, two instruments of Russia, caused risings against the Porte. Turkey dismissed them without Russia’s consent, thus violating an agreement made in 1802. Russia and England protested. The two were replaced. But, encouraged by the French, Turkey declared war on Russia, although the British Ambassador3 threat[en]ed to join Russia against Turkey on 6 Nov. 1806. The British fleet passed the Straits, anchored off Istanbul, and delivered an ultimatum to Turkey, ordering her to [Page 1038] dismiss the French Ambassador4 within 24 hours and to make peace with Russia. The Porte, encouraged by the French and by popular indignation at the presence of the ships, resisted. The entire population of Constantinople ranged 1000 guns along both sides of the Bosporus in one day and fired on the British fleet which retired, considerably damaged. Turkey concluded a peace with Russia 28 [16] May 1812 at Bucharest.5 The Black Sea was opened to Russian ships.

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 a European guarantee of the integrity of the Turkish Empire was proposed. The Porte deemed the proposal a humiliating foreign intervention and refused.

In 1826 [George] Canning persuaded Nicholas I to call a conference in St. Petersburg. As a result of this conference England was empowered to offer Turkey a settlement of the Greek question based on the establishment of Greece as a vassal and tributary State. The Porte, though it resented new demands, was unable to resist and signed the Convention of Ackermann6 accepting the Russian demands which were: confirmation of the Treaty of Bucharest; opening of the navigation of the Black Sea to Russian ships; 7 years’ term of office for the hospodars of Walachia and Moldavia, as well as the consent of the Russian Ambassador in Constantinople before their dismissal.

Despite the settlements made by the Convention of Ackermann differences between Turkey and Greece still existed. The Treaty of London, signed July 6, 18277 secured the autonomy of Greece under the suzerainty of the sultan without any breach of friendly relations with Turkey. By additional secret articles it was agreed that in the event of the Porte not accepted [sic] the offered mediation, consuls should be established in Greece and an armistice proposed to both belligerents and enforced by the Powers. Turkey refused to accept the terms and continued to fight. The Russian and French fleets joined the British fleet at Navarino and attacked and [d]estroyed the Turkish and Egyptian fleets. The terms of peace were finally signed at Adrianople, 14 Sept. 1829[.] The Treaty of Adrianople8 between Turkey and Russia provided that the Danubian principalities were to become practically independent; that the districts of Anapa and Poti were to be ceded to Russia; and the Greek question was to be settled according to the terms of the London Protocol. But in order that Russia might not enjoy the prestige of having emancipated Greece unaided, the other Powers decided to give further concessions to Greece, and this was expanded into the Treaty of London of 7 May [Page 1039] 1832,9 by which Greece became an independent kingdom under Prince Otto of Bavaria.

Egypt, supported by France, invaded Syria in 1833. Turkey was unable to obtain British support since Palmerston refused in spite of the efforts of Stratford Canning. In desperation Turkey asked for Russian aid. The Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi was signed 8 July 1833.10 The Russians marched to the Bosporus. Britain and France were suspicious of a Russian army at the gates of Constantinople. They forced the Egyptians to withdraw. The Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi included clauses which permitted Russian warships to pass through the Straits, to land troops if necessary, and closed the Straits to warships of all other powers. Britain desired these clauses removed and called a conference in London. In order to break the entente between England and France, Russia signed the “protocol des détroits” of this conference on 13 July 1840 [1841]11 by which the sultan was to close the Straits to warships of all the Powers and the Black Sea to Russian warships.

The Westernization of Turkey began seriously in 1840. The possibility of a strong and reformed Turkey made Russia uneasy. She had always considered herself the rightful heir to the declining Turkish State. In 1844 the Tsar went to London to propose the partition of Turkey. Britain, suspicious of Russian designs, refused to solve the Eastern Question by so drastic a measure.

The Turkish problems drew new attention in 1856 when Catholic and Orthodox monks quarrelled about the Holy Places in Palestine, This was settled partially, but the sultan refused Russian protection for Christians, so on 22 June 1853, Russia attacked the Danubian principalities, explaining by a circular that this was not with the purpose of attacking Turkey but in order to obtain material guarantees for the enforcement of the existing treaties. In August a conference was held in Vienna, but no settlement was reached. Turkey declared war on Russia in October.

The French and British fleets passed the Dardanelles, declaring war on Russia 27 March 1854. The threatened intervention of Austria forced Russia to accept terms which were ultimately embodied in the Treaty of Paris, 30 March 1856,12 bringing to a close the Crimean War. Russia abandoned her pretensions to protect the Christians in Turkey, renounced her right of exclusive interference in the Danubian principalities, and the Black Sea was to be open to commercial ships of all [Page 1040] countries and closed to all warships except a limited number of small warships belonging to Turkey and Russia.

Alexander II made use of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 to repudiate the provisions of the Paris Treaty forbidding her to construct naval arsenals and to keep a fleet in the Black Sea. An International Conference in London in 1871 recognized the right of Russia and Turkey to abrogate the restrictions of the Paris Treaty, but the passage of the Straits could not be used by warships.13

A conference of the delegates of the great Powers gathered in 1877 to discuss the Bosnian, Serbian and Bulgarian questions in Constantinople. Its final proposals were that an international commission of investigation should be formed and that a governor general, elected by the sultan, and approved by the Powers, should be appointed over the provinces in question. This proposition the Porte rejected and Russia declared war on 24 April 1877. The Turks were defeated and the Treaty of San Stefano was signed 5 [3] March 1878.14 It was somewhat modified by the Congress of Berlin the following July.15 The most important clause was the formal engagement of Turkey to introduce reforms in the provinces having Armenian minorities. The independence of Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro was recognized.

Bismarck concluded his famous “re-insurance” treaty with Russia in 1884 [1887].16 This secured Russia against the opening of the Straits to Britain and permitted her, by a secret protocol, the military occupation of them in case of necessity. In 1890 a Russian proposal to prolong this treaty was rejected by Germany who was courting Britain. Thus Russia formed a rapprochement with France.

In 1894, Lord Rosebery, British Foreign Minister soon to become Prime Minister, told the Austrian Ambassador, Count Deym, that any attempt by Russia to change existing understandings regarding the Straits would be looked upon by Britain as affording a casus belli.

The agreement of Edward VII and Nicholas II at Reval in 1907 [1908] was widely rumored to be a new plan for the partition of Turkey. The following year the Russian and Austrian foreign ministers met at Buchlau, 15 Sept. 1908, and agreed on a partition program by which the Straits were to be in the Russian Zone and Bulgaria a Russian sphere of Influence. On 5 Oct. Austria annexed Hercegovina, and Bulgaria declared her complete independence. For Turkey’s recognition of this independence, Russia cancelled 20 million pounds of Turkey’s indemnity.

In 1915 Sir Edward Grey reversed Britain’s traditional policy and concluded the Straits Agreements by which Russia was promised the [Page 1041] opening of the Straits after the war.17 The Straits Convention of 24 July 192318 imposed this settlement.

At the Lausanne Conference, at which this Convention was drawn up, Russia opposed the opening of the Straits, because of her weakened position. Britain advocated it to enable her warships to intervene in the civil war in Russia.

Turkey was allowed a fleet, a garrison in Constantinople, and the demilitarized zones on either side of the Straits were reduced. Freedom of navigation was guaranteed by the 3 Great Powers and Japan, and Turkey granted restricted right of passage for warships. While protesting, Russia became a party to this Convention on 4 August 1923.

In April 1936, Turkey requested permission to refortify the Straits. In July, the Montreux Conference granted this permission to Turkey.19

  1. Submitted to Byrnes under cover of a personal note dated July 4.
  2. Peace between France and the United Kingdom was restored by the Treaty of Amiens, signed March 27, 1802; text in Georg Friedrich von Martens, comp., Recueil des principaux traités d’alliance, de paix, de trêve, de neutralité, de commerce, de limites, d’échange, etc., conclus par les puissances de l’Europe, 2d edition (Göttingen, 1817–1835), vol. vii, p. 404. Peace between France and the Ottoman Empire was restored by the Treaty of Paris, signed June 25, 1802; text ibid., p. 416, and in Gabriel Noradounghian, comp., Recueil d’actes internationaux de l’empire ottoman (Paris, 1897–1903), vol. ii, p. 51. The substantive portions of the Treaty of Paris and of most of the agreements mentioned below are also printed in J. C. Hurewitz, Diplomacy in tile Near and Middle East: A Documentary Record (Princeton, 1956).
  3. Charles Arbuthnot.
  4. General of Division Horace-François-Bastien Sébastiani.
  5. Text in British and Foreign State Papers, vol. xiii, p. 908.
  6. Text printed ibid., p. 899.
  7. Text printed ibid., vol. xiv, p. 632.
  8. Text of the provisions relating to the Straits in Howard, The Problem of the Turkish Straits, p. 15.
  9. Text in British and Foreign State Papers, vol. xix, p. 33.
  10. Text of the pertinent provisions in Howard, The Problem of the Turkish Straits, p. 16.
  11. Text of the pertinent provisions printed ibid., p. 17. A similar provision had been included in the Convention of London of July 15, 1840; see ibid., p. 16.
  12. Text of the provisions concerning the Black Sea and the Straits printed ibid., pp. 17, 18.
  13. See Howard, The Problem of the Turkish Straits, p. 18.
  14. Text of the pertinent provisions printed ibid., p. 18.
  15. See ibid., pp. 18, 19.
  16. Signed at Berlin, June 18, 1887. Text in Heinrich Triepel, ed., Nouveau recueil général de traités et autres actes relatifs aux rapports de droit international, 3d series (Leipzig and Greifswald, 1908–1944), vol. x, p. 37.
  17. See Foreign Relations, 1917, supp. 2, vol. i, pp. 494497. Cf. E. L. Woodward and Rohan Butler, eds., Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939 (London, 1946– ), 1st series, vol. iv, pp. 635–638; Hurewitz, Diplomacy in the Near and Middle East, vol. ii, pp. 7–11.
  18. Text of the substantive provisions in Howard, The Problem of the Turkish Straits, p. 21; full text in League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. xxviii, p. 115.
  19. Text of the substantive provisions of the Montreux Convention of July 20, 1936, in Howard, The Problem of the Turkish Straits, p. 25; full text in League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. clxxiii, p. 213.