DIRE STRAITS

It was not the closest the US and USSR came to blows during the Cold War, but the Turkish Straits crisis of 1946 was both the first and easily the most thoroughly forgotten brush with World War III.

Briefly, at the end of World War II the Soviets under Stalin made a laudably ballsy attempt to solve one of its oldest strategic, economic, and political handicaps. For all its globe-spanning size, neither today's Russia or the former USSR lacks one very basic and crucial feature: a year-around ice free shipping port. Its eastern ports are not economically and militarily useful because they are thousands of miles from European Russia, and its northern ports like Murmansk and Leningrad / St. Petersburg (Not to be confused with the one in Florida, aka "America's Strip Club") freeze over during the winter.

Of course the country has port access in other places, but all involve a second country. Most prominently, the Black Sea provides year-around access to the Mediterranean (and thus the world) but requires passage through two narrow straits that pass through Turkey – the Bosphorous and the ones I have never once spelled correctly on the first try, the Dardanelles. If you recall, two years ago we refreshed our memories about how important this Black Sea outlet to the world is to the Russians when they moved aggressively into Ukraine to secure access via the Crimea. There was also a thing called the Crimean War a while back. It's safe to say this is kind of a big thing to Russia. (As a side note, Soviet Georgia had territorial claims on part of Turkey, which the Russian government includes today in their territorial claim over, well, all of its former republics)

In the period of exhaustion and confusion that followed WWII, the Soviets formally demanded that Turkey allow it to place bases on the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Later the demand evolved to joint Soviet-Turkish administration of the straits, effectively giving the USSR not only access to but sovereignty over the seaway. Harry Truman, always one for subtlety, used the pretense of needing to repatriate the remains of the recently deceased Turkish ambassador to the US to send the battleship USS Missouri and a half-dozen other Big Stick vessels to Turkey to sail around and look really impressive. The Soviets responded by conducting "exercises" in the Black Sea within spitting distance of the Turkish shores. In a then-classified telegram, American diplomat Dean Acheson described the situation in a way that would come to define the Cold War:

In our opinion the primary objective of the Soviet Union is to obtain control over Turkey. We believe that if the Soviet Union succeeds in introducing into Turkey armed forces with the ostensible purpose of enforcing the joint control of the Straits, the Soviet Union will use these forces in order to obtain control over Turkey…. In our opinion, therefore, the time has come when we must decide that we shall resist with all means at our disposal any Soviet aggression and in particular, because the case of Turkey would be so clear, any Soviet aggression against Turkey. In carrying this policy our words and acts will only carry conviction to the Soviet Union if they are formulated against the background of an inner conviction and determination on our part that we cannot permit Turkey to become the object of Soviet aggression.

Even Stalin, as belligerent as they come, recognized that the Russians were not actually prepared to fight over the straits or anything else in the Summer of 1946. The USSR dropped its formal request to take possession of the two straits but, for face-saving purposes, maintained its "opinion" that the Soviets should have sovereignty over them. When Stalin died they abandoned the issue altogether. By then it was too late, though. The acquisitive stares and saber-rattlings of the Soviet Union sent Turkey running for the sweet protective embrace of NATO and $100,000,000 in economic aid in 1952.

As the story of the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey unfolds, it's worth keeping in mind that successive Russian governments have been searching for a reason to fight this fight for a couple of centuries. It's a good thing we have such a strong visionary leader ready to stand up against Russian aggression. A modern day Harry Truman.

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33 Responses to “DIRE STRAITS”

  1. Greg Says:

    Man, Ed, great piece but major fail on the Florida joke. Everyone knows that Tampa is the strip club "paradise." St Pete used to be all olds but has been reborn as ersatz hipster land. Also, google Joe Redner if you want to laugh yourself silly.

  2. Isaac Says:

    Well, Trump did say he wants to bring back the battleships.

  3. MPR Says:

    "neither today's Russia or the former USSR lacks one very basic and crucial feature"

    Dontcha mean "both/and"? Or sub "possess" for "lacks" – that works too.

    Yay pedantry!

  4. Michael Says:

    I hate how much I think, on the regular, "Yeah, well, Obama wouldn't have done any better." I know Obama has Erdogan on speed dial and exchanges snapchats full of hearts and sparkles with him, but every time Russia has gotten serious about something, it has gotten what it wanted from him.

    Something about capitulating to entitled white guys. It's his thing.

  5. jcdenton Says:

    @Michael,

    I think (probable) US interference in the Maidan Revolution/Euromaidan indicates that Obama didn't necessarily fold for Russia. He certainly did a lot more to support Ukraine than say Merkel did (albeit in a relatively quiet fashion). Also, I'm going to make the basic assumption that Obama paid attention to his generals/experts, even if he didn't always act on their advice. The same can't be said for Pumpkin Pinochet.

  6. DavidS Says:

    A detail, but Murmansk is actually a year-round ice-free port….

  7. David S Says:

    A detail, but Murmansk is actually a year-round ice-free port….

  8. Marinus Says:

    Murmansk is ice free year round, which is why it was established in 1915 by Imperial decree and why it was (and I think still is) the base for the Russian submarine fleet. But your point stands. Murmansk is an unlivable shit hole which has been shedding population since the end of the Soviet Union, losing 100,00 people (a quarter of it's population) since 1989. It is also not that much better place to base your surface fleet than Vladivostok, since it is also remote and any ships traveling from there has to go past Norway and the UK to get anywhere. It's also extremely undesirable to have a massive nation like Russia depend on two harbours at its two northern corners for naval access.

  9. democommie Says:

    @Marinus:

    Considering Czar/Uncle Vlad's designs on his neighbors, that is at least 2 more ports than they are comfortable with.

  10. Major Kong Says:

    Very interesting diary. I'd never heard of that particular crisis.

  11. Khaled Says:

    The port of Novorossiysk was supposed to get a several hundred million dollar upgrade, but the Russians invaded Crimea instead and kept the deep water port in Sevastopol.

    Additionally, the port at Murmansk may be ice free year round, but since the port empties out into the Barents Sea, it's not as if ice and storms aren't gonna be a huge concern. Of course, once the ice cap melts and everything is underwater, Murmansk is gonna look good, but hey, someone else's problem, amirite?

  12. Ormond Otvos Says:

    I, too, believe in the Great Pumpkin. He will save us all!

  13. blakenator Says:

    Re: Michael:
    Why is it that not starting another war seen as "capitulation and weakness" nowadays?

  14. Ormond Otvos Says:

    Other than that, why do all the chatterati presume that any serious analysis at all of these situations is being done by the Bumpkin and his appointed Gourds?

  15. Bitter Scribe Says:

    It's perhaps interesting to note that Dean Acheson was considered a stripey-pants, Communist-appeasing weakling by the acolytes of the politician whom Trump IMO resembles most closely: Joe McCarthy.

  16. Pat Says:

    Tremendously interesting story. It's perhaps worth noting that sixteen years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Americans used their missile capabilities in Turkey as a trade-off for the Soviets' withdrawal of missiles from Cuba. (Wikipedia notes the missiles present in Turkey were already obsolete. I'm guessing they still could have fired.) Add to the history with the Crimean Peninsula, and there's plenty of historical precedent to Russia's recent affairs with Turkey.

    (Adding: How is Murmansk ice-free year-round? I'm completely baffled by how that's possible. It's so far north!)

  17. mago Says:

    Not a Mark Knopfler fan, but the straits are always dire because those who seek power seek control of commerce and waterways and those living and working those places get screwed per usual while the driven play their gambling games of conquest.
    Or something.
    No, man, Turkey, that murderous place, is key to world power plays.
    Just like water.
    Yeah, dire straits.

  18. drouse Says:

    As much as the Russians might want to, I see no way for them to accomplish it. Not without major land forces. They just don't have the navy to do it. And certainly not with the current balance of force in the region.

  19. Kovpakistan Says:

    Forget war between Russia and Turkey over this. Literally before the blood was dry Russian state media and even high ranking officials were calling it a provocation to damage Russia-Turkish relations, echoing Erdogan's words.

    While the Russian and Turkish governments have disagreements over Syria, these are two dictatorships who have a beef with the West, and they have been growing closer over the years. There's a lot of economic cooperation between the two countries.

    If they end up falling out over Syria, the only fighting between the two will be passive-aggressive sanctions and covert stuff. For example, Russia suddenly started taking up the cause of Rojava after Turkey shot down the Su-24 last year. Now that the two sides have kissed and made up, expect them to abandon Rojava and the PYD in the near future.

    If Assad gets bold and decides to attack Rojava, Russia will drop the Kurds faster than their media drops bullshit stories about Ukraine.

  20. geoff Says:

    I have actually read speculations out on the foilier fringes of the internets that the assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara was a final FU to Putin from Brennan and Clapper and their GCC buddies for foiling their "regime change" plans in Syria.

  21. Kaleberg Says:

    What is it with these old guys and battleships? I remember back in the 1960s, battleships were considered obsolete. World War II showed just how vulnerable they were to aircraft and shore fire. Then Reagan insisted on battleships. Now Trump will be insisting on battleships. It's some kind of weird fetish.

  22. Bitter Scribe Says:

    @Kalesberg: That's what happens when your leaders get their inspiration from Hasbro board games.

  23. Skepticalist Says:

    Battleships are so damned cool though. Trump can't wait.

  24. democommie Says:

    Cheetah Mussolini saw that Segal movie about the battleship (the one with Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones); he wants it to be real.

  25. mainmata Says:

    Another detail. Kaliningrad is a (detached) part of Russia but it is an ice-free port, too. You're right that it's mainly a Mediterranean/ Atlantic issue since Vladivostok ("Paris of the East") has a substantial naval presence. I worked there in the 1990s and it was the farthest thing from Paris (post-Soviet cowboys and gangsters) and it had mainly poorly maintained subs and destroyer type ships.

  26. DIRE STRAITS - Independent news and blog Says:

    […] Original Article […]

  27. Kordo Says:

    Correction: Tampa is "America's Strip Club". St Pete is "God's Waiting Room".

  28. Don Says:

    Your Dardanelles spelling was masterful; it's your Bosphorus that needs work. I just spell everything W-E-A-R-E-F-U-C-K-E-D these days anyway.

  29. geoff Says:

    Hey Ed, all, speaking of nuclear annihilation (it's the most wonderful time of the year!), here's a scary new article by Eric Schlosser about just that:

    http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/world-war-three-by-mistake

  30. democommie Says:

    Our new anthem:

  31. Cooper H Says:

    TF? I came here to hear Sultans of Swing.

  32. geoff Says:

    @dc, my mother only very recently apologized to me for playing that song when I was a tot. "That must have scared the hell out of you!" Nope, I didn't get The Fear until I read "Alas, Babylon" when I was about 12. Kicked in pretty good during the early/ mid '80s though!

  33. Bob Says:

    My, aren't we a happy bunch of idiots.