Written by Anton Khimiak, HWAG/UCMC analyst
At a NATO defense ministers meeting on October 12, representatives from Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania agreed to form a “trilateral initiative” to clear sea mines in the Black Sea. The operation, according to Bulgarian Defense Minister Todor Tagarev, aims to create a security belt for civilian shipping. The importance of this format is driven by the need to secure a corridor for Ukrainian grain exports.
Will the Alliance’s demining operation initiative, however, have a strategic impact on the regional security situation?
What is Ukraine’s potential role in facilitating the operation?
What factors enabled the operation to take place?
Civilian shipping in the Black Sea has been severely restricted since the start of the full-scale invasion. Last spring, the Russian command, hoping to land near Odesa, operated close to the coast. However, following the sinking of the flagship cruiser Moskva, the loss of control of Zmeinyi Island, and Ukraine’s successful use of cruise missiles and water-based drones, Russia was forced to relocate the majority of its warships from Crimea to Novorossiysk. As a result, the Russian Navy’s capabilities to conduct operations in the Black Sea’s western and northwestern waters are now nearly equal.
Thus, the navies of Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey were able to operate in conditions where direct contact with the Russian Black Sea Fleet was unlikely.
At least six Bulgarian and one Romanian naval vessels are involved in the demining operation, according to the Black Sea Institute for Strategic Studies and BlackSeaNews:
International Security Implications
The Grain Agreement (signed on July 22, 2022) allowed civilian vessels to sail between Odesa and the Bosphorus with almost no restrictions in order to export Ukrainian agricultural products. However, the security umbrella for Ukrainian ports was extremely shaky, as Russia manipulated its participation in the agreement on a regular basis. The Kremlin eventually backed out of the grain deal (17 July 2023) and began to threaten civilian shipping. According to British intelligence, Russia is attempting to shift responsibility to Ukraine.
The operations of Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey’s Black Sea Mine Countermeasures Squadron in the region are critical to ensuring global food security. According to statistics, NATO’s mine clearance operation helped to increase shipping in the grain corridor in the second half of October.
This is especially important for the Turkish leadership, which promotes itself as a provider of food security to Africa and Asia. At the same time, the grain corridor’s well-coordinated operation reduces the likelihood of potential migration crises, which are frequently manipulated by Russia.
It is also worth noting that the Black Sea Trio’s mine action contradicts Kremlin anti-NATO propaganda. The humanitarian focus of the Black Sea Allies’ operation renders accusations of “expansion of the aggressive NATO bloc” in the Black Sea absurd.
Furthermore, such an operation reinforces President Zelenskyy’s position on the importance of continuing the Black Sea Grain Initiative in a trilateral format – with or without Russia’s participation.
What is the significance of NATO’s demining mission?
According to Bloomberg, one of the goals of Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey’s joint activity in the Black Sea is to demonstrate the participating countries’ ability to address security challenges independently. Given the strategic importance of the Black Sea region and the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, this operation could significantly increase the Alliance’s interest in the region.
It should be noted that the operation is an important component of practicing the interaction of NATO Black Sea navies in the context of the sea becoming a theatre of operations between Ukraine and Russia. The activities of the joint minesweeping squadron also help NATO gain a better understanding of the operational situation in the region.
Former NATO Allied Forces Europe commander James Stavridis believes that the US could re-register civilian ships under the US flag or form merchant ship escort groups to address the issue of civilian shipping security in the Black Sea. Both options, however, would involve NATO partners in a war between Russia and Ukraine, which would be contrary to NATO’s strategic policy.
Nevertheless, NATO Allies already have the means in their arsenal to influence the security of the region without posing a specific threat to the Alliance. First and foremost, we are discussing aerial reconnaissance using drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper.
As a result, a successful mine countermeasures operation will demonstrate that the Alliance should pay more attention to the Black Sea region.
The role of Ukraine in shaping the Black Sea security space
In the future, Ukraine may propose joining the trilateral grouping of Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. The format of Ukraine’s participation will be determined by a number of factors, including the dynamics of hostilities and the positions of other participants.
“Our sailors are now continuing their training abroad and are actively preparing for the time when the threat of the Russian occupation fleet will eventually be neutralized and Ukrainian waters can be cleared of mines. Until then, full interoperability with our Western partners in accordance with NATO standards is critical…”
Ukrainian General Staff
In the context of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration, this operation is indeed appropriate. However, there is a risk of Russian manipulation, which will increase the Black Sea partners’ skepticism about such cooperation.
The Ukrainian Navy will require advanced naval capabilities, such as mine countermeasures ships, unmanned underwater vehicles, and integrated surveillance systems, to effectively contribute to this initiative.
“Ukraine has already received two Sandown minesweepers from the UK and is expected to receive two more ships of the same type from the Netherlands”Maksym Palamarchuk, an expert at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a commentary for UCMC.
“There have been reports of other partner countries, including Germany, transferring underwater unmanned aerial vehicles suitable for mine action. However, if the unmanned vehicles can be delivered by land, the passage of ships is only possible after the end of hostilities, according to the Montreux Convention.”Maksym Palamarchuk, an expert at the National Institute for Strategic Studies
Indeed, the Montreux Convention establishes several critical conditions for naval activities in the Black Sea:
- Due to restrictions imposed on non-Black Sea countries (tonnage, class of ships, time spent in the Black Sea, etc.), NATO cannot increase its direct presence in the Black Sea;
- The Kremlin cannot recover its irreversible losses of the Black Sea Fleet until the end of hostilities and Ankara’s decision to “open” the Bosphorus to Russian warships.
After all, it is in Turkey’s best interests to keep the Black Sea an exclusive zone of interest for Black Sea states, thereby limiting third-party interference in the region’s affairs. Of course, Russia will use the appearance and activities of ships from other NATO countries to confirm the narrative of an “aggressive NATO bloc.”
Therefore, in the medium term, Ukraine must focus on its own capabilities in order to limit the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Black Sea.
The lack of a collective NATO response to the Kremlin’s immediate threats has prompted the Alliance’s Black Sea trio to consolidate due to a clear common security interest.
The demining initiative benefits both regional security and countries in the so-called Global South that rely on Ukraine for food supplies. As a result, it benefits the information component of the international conflict in the Black Sea.
It is worth noting that Ukraine’s successful efforts to weaken and limit the Russian fleet’s operational area prompted Black Sea NATO states to act on a demining operation. This is an example of Ukraine and the Alliance working together strategically.
To effectively contribute to regional security, Ukraine’s potential participation in the trilateral initiative will necessitate advanced naval capabilities. The Mine Action Mission exemplifies how NATO Allies and Ukraine can work together to make the Black Sea region more stable and secure.