A Panama-flagged cargo ship navigating the Black Sea on its way to a Danube River port to load grain, a crucial export commodity for war-hit Ukraine, was jolted by an explosion in late December that threw the vessel off course, sparked a fire on deck, and left two crew members injured.
The Ukrainian military, which dispatched tugs to the site, said on December 28 that the ship had hit a Russian mine in the Black Sea, the second such incident in as many months in the major trade route.
Since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February 2022, the Black Sea has increasingly become a war zone, its waters littered with mines and its skies buzzing with drones and missiles. Russian attacks have hit targets close to the borders of NATO members Romania and Bulgaria, threatening new shipping routes that have been a lifeline for Ukraine. And tourists, usually bound for Black Sea resorts, have been scared away with reports of drifting rogue mines.
There could be some respite, however, after Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria -- the only NATO countries with direct access to the Black Sea -- announced on January 11 the launch of a joint force to clear sea mines, the first major combined effort among allies in the dangerous waters since the start of Russia's 2022 invasion.
The Turkish and Romanian defense ministers -- Yasar Guler and Angel Tilvar, respectively -- and Bulgaria's Deputy Defense Minister Atanas Zapryanov signed a memorandum of understanding in Istanbul establishing the Mine Countermeasures Naval Group in the Black Sea (MCM Black Sea).
The joint operation will primarily deploy minesweepers -- specially equipped warships that remove or detonate naval mines in large areas -- and minehunters, smaller, more nimble vessels that destroy individual mines and can operate in shallow waters. The three countries will also utilize helicopters and drones from the air.
While the new force is meant to protect Black Sea shipping, officials from Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria have said it is intended to be entirely peaceful and won't bring any new NATO vessels to the sea. The Bulgarian Defense Ministry told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that the joint minesweeping action should be operative within a few months.
Although not formally involved, NATO has welcomed the initiative.
"Russia's war against Ukraine poses substantial risks to freedom of navigation in the Black Sea region, which is of strategic importance to NATO," the alliance said in a statement to RFE/RL. "We welcome efforts by our allies Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey to increase the safety of navigation in the Black Sea, including through a new countermine naval group."
The idea of creating such a "trilateral initiative" was first aired by NATO defense ministers on October 12. Bulgarian Defense Minister Todor Tagarev said the aim would be to create a security belt, free from mines, to protect ships carrying Ukrainian exports.
Three months prior, in July, Russia withdrew from a 2022 UN-brokered Black Sea grain export deal and threatened to treat all vessels as potential military targets. To get its grain to market, Ukraine created a new shipping corridor, which hugs Romania's 245-kilometer and Bulgaria's 378-kilometer coastlines on the Black Sea.
In response, Russia has "absolutely" increased its mining and other hostile activities in and around the Black Sea to thwart Ukraine's efforts to get its grain to world markets, Tomas Alexa, a senior analyst of the British maritime security firm Ambrey, told RFE/RL. Ukraine has regularly accused Russia of dropping mines from aircraft in an attempt to disrupt commercial shipping.
The danger and prevalence of sea mines in the Black Sea became quickly apparent in the weeks after Russia launched its February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the following weeks, Ukraine deployed mines to protect its ports in and around the Black Sea, Alexa said.
Russia also was reported to have laid mines in the waters off Crimea, which it illegally seized from Ukraine in 2014. Ambrey has recently confirmed reports, Alexa said, that Russia has also deployed mines around the Crimean Bridge, which connects Russia to the illegally annexed peninsula and has been targeted by attacks allegedly carried out by Ukraine's military.
No exact numbers are available, but Alexa said both Ukraine and Russia had stockpiles of Soviet-era YaM anchor mines, which are tethered with a chain and float a few meters below the surface.
"Four hundred, 500 mines were deployed in the Black Sea at the start of the war,” he said.
The consequences of the mass mining were dramatic. On March 3, 2022, the Estonian-owned M/V Helt sank in the Black Sea after striking a mine some 40 kilometers south of Odesa, with all crew safely abandoning ship. Shortly thereafter, several warnings were issued cautioning ships about the possibility of drifting mines in the northwestern, western, and southwestern areas of the Black Sea, including by the NATO Shipping Center.
Later that month, on March 26, 2022, the Turkish Navy detected and detonated the first stray mine in the Black Sea off the cast of Istanbul near the Bosphorus Strait, prompting the temporary closure of the key waterway. Two days later, a second drifting mine was detected off the coast of Igneada, near the Bulgarian border, and deactivated by a Turkish Navy dive team.
That same day, the Romanian Navy minesweeper Vice Admiral Constantin Balescu detonated a floating naval mine spotted by a Romanian fisherman about 90 kilometers off Capu Midia, a Romanian military base located near the Black Sea port of Constanta. Turkey destroyed a fourth mine on April 6, 2022.
For Romania, the danger posed by mines is especially acute given that "Romanian territorial waters and ports are now of crucial importance and have witnessed record traffic levels," explained Cristian Vlas, an analyst focused on Romania and Moldova.
Romania's port of Constanta recorded its highest grain exports in 2023 thanks to a surge in shipments from Ukraine, Romanian officials said on January 10.
"Romania will be the first to suffer the consequences in the Black Sea," said Dionis Cenusa, an associate expert at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Center. "Because sea mines are moving south, even through Romanian waters."
The situation in the Black Sea region worsened after Russia pulled out of the UN-brokered grain deal in July and began bombing Ukrainian port and grain facilities in a bid to cripple Kyiv's exports. That same month, a sea mine exploded close to the Romanian resort of Costinesti, which is located 30 kilometers from the Bulgarian border.
That summer, Russia held military drills in the Black Sea that encroached on parts of the Bulgarian and Turkish exclusive economic areas, making export routes even more dangerous to navigate. In August, Russia said in a statement that its Vasily Bykov patrol ship had fired automatic weapons on the Palau-flagged Sukru Okan vessel. The ship was located near Turkish territorial waters. And in October, a mine explosion caused minor damage to a Turkish-flagged cargo ship.
The December 28 attack on the Panamanian vessel was one of the most worrying mine incidents to date, said Alexa.
"The damage done is from the force of the blast under the ship. If the mine is on the surface, the explosion is not as damaging," he said.
Bulgaria has three minesweeping vessels, two of which were acquired in 2020 from the Netherlands -- which had decommissioned the pair in 2011 -- for 2 million euros ($2.2 million).
In September 2023, Romania bought two minesweepers from the United Kingdom -- the HMS Blyth and HMS Pembroke -- in a deal declared of strategic importance by the British Defense Ministry to bolster London's commitment to security in the Black Sea. One of the two ships -- the HMS Blyth -- was filmed passing through the Bosphorus Strait in December and renamed as the Ion Giculescu.
Turkey has more than 10 minehunters, with the oldest dating from 1998 and the newest from 2009. While Ankara is on board with the mine-clearing initiative, it is blocking Ukraine from receiving its own minesweeping vessels. On January 2, Turkey said it would not allow two minehunter ships donated by Britain to Ukraine to transit its waters en route to the Black Sea. It claimed that such a move would violate the Montreux Convention, a 1936 international pact concerning wartime passage of its straits (the Dardanelles Strait, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus Strait).
Turkey's stance has been criticized, including by former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis, who argued in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that the Montreux Convention doesn't apply to minesweeping vessels since they "are entirely defensive."
Washington's Black Sea Strategy
Given its strategic importance and risks posed, Washington has recalibrated its strategy on the Black Sea. In a major announcement in October, the State Department outlined plans to increase regional security, multilateral cooperation, and strategic cohesion in that region.
At the time, Assistant Secretary of State James O'Brien told a congressional hearing that the Black Sea's fate is inextricably linked to that of Ukraine and wider Europe. Increasing and ensuring freedom of navigation, and restoring Ukraine's ability to access commercial shipping lanes, will boost the Ukrainian economy at a vital point in the war, O'Brien said.
Washington's strategic rethink, analysts say, followed the loss of a U.S. surveillance drone last March after a hostile encounter with Russian fighter jets over the Black Sea. Soon thereafter, members of the Senate and House Foreign Relations committees submitted a bipartisan bill highlighting the importance of the region and the need to establish a new strategy.
Concerns in Washington and among some Black Sea states have intensified, with Russia indicating it may have revanchist plans for the region. Putin waxed nostalgic recently about the period of history where imperial Russia held sway over much of the Black Sea area.
During his annual press conference and call-in event on December 14, Putin said: "The entire Black Sea coast became Russian after the Russo-Turkish Wars," apparently referring to the war of 1877-78, although others have disputed the Russian president's interpretation of history.
The Russian leader's remarks did not go unnoticed, especially in Sofia. Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov said a day later, on December 15, that Putin's comment betrayed Russia's "imperial ambitions at the expense of several countries which are now in the EU" and should serve as a warning.
Part of the Kremlin's immediate strategy could be sea mines, not only to target Ukraine but to deter their Western partners, maritime analyst Alexa said.
"The Russians understand it is not in their interest to directly attack Western ships, but they want to discourage them from entering the area and helping the Ukrainians export grain," Alexa explained. "Since both sides have the same types of mines, they have plausible deniability if a ship hits one of these explosives."
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