On Jan. 11, the defense ministers from three North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, signed a trilateral agreement to launch a joint minesweeping mission in the Black Sea. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the threat of sea mines — which both countries have deployed — to maritime traffic in the region has become exponentially more acute. Because of the danger they pose to both military and civilian vessels, the non-belligerent littoral states have been scrambling to detect and neutralize these mines and protect their own ships. The latest trilateral initiative, however, is a welcome sign of regional willingness to cooperate in this space and could, with the right incentives and sufficient political will, open the door to the establishment of a NATO Black Sea Fleet — a concept long opposed by Turkey but crucial for effectively maintaining security and opposing Russian efforts to destabilize the region.

Minefield in the Black Sea

Over the past two years, significant losses caused by Ukrainian drone and missile strikes have forced the Russian Black Sea Fleet to pull back from Ukraine’s southwestern coast and redeploy its vessels from the Sevastopol naval base in occupied Crimea to Novorossiysk. This has allowed Ukraine to re-establish a maritime transit route for cargo ships to reach Ukrainian ports in and around Bessarabia. Yet this corridor is far from secure, as Russia continues to lay naval mines in the Black Sea to stop ships that the Kremlin claims could potentially be carrying military supplies to Ukrainian ports. To compensate for the limited access of Russian vessels, Ilyushin Il-38 maritime patrol aircraft are reportedly dropping bottom mines. The danger from mines continues to disrupt commercial maritime traffic in the Black Sea, with the latest incident in late December crippling a Panama-flagged vessel and injuring two of its crew members.

Naval mine warfare fits perfectly into Russia’s playbook of employing tactics that are low cost relative to their effect. And the use of mines has been particularly disruptive against ships carrying grain from Ukraine. Before the July 2022-July 2023 “Black Sea Grain Initiative” collapsed, 33 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain and related foodstuffs were transported by ship, with over half of the exports going to developing countries. But after Moscow unilaterally scuppered the deal, the renewed threat from Russian mines deterred many shipowners from taking the risk, putting a strain on the global market, raising prices, and creating further complications for Ukraine’s already-struggling agricultural sector.

Sea mines also factor into Russia’s Information Warfare efforts to turn international opinion against Ukraine. On March 19, 2022, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) circulated a navigational telex (NAVTEX) warning issued by the Novorossiysk coastal station that more than 400 Ukrainian moored mines had allegedly broken loose and were drifting in the Black Sea. This NAVTEX came just two weeks after an Estonian cargo vessel sank off the coast of Odesa following an explosion that many believe was caused by a naval mine. The Ukrainian foreign ministry rejected the blame and accused Russia of using naval mines seized from Ukraine during the 2014 annexation of Crimea to orchestrate a dangerous environment and foment international distrust toward Kyiv. Any controversy involving suspected strikes by Ukrainian mines would risk amplifying the war fatigue in the West, particularly as much of the world is now focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To address the threat of these mines to commercial shipping and Ukraine’s maritime security, the littoral states should significantly boost their focus on and coordination in minesweeping operations as well as bolster Ukraine’s own capabilities. Last October, the Ukraine Defense Contact Group made a critical step forward in this endeavor when Bulgaria and Romania deployed a joint minesweeping naval task force to operate along the coast-hugging maritime corridor Ukraine established for commercial shippers following the collapse of the grain export deal. Furthermore, British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps and his Norwegian counterpart, Bjørn Arild Gram, announced the formation of a Maritime Capability Coalition aimed at providing training, equipment, and infrastructure for the Ukrainian Navy. As part of this new initiative, the Royal Navy will transfer two Sandown-class mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs) to Ukraine.

Ukrainian sailors’ participation in minesweeping exercises with NATO member states is another encouraging sign of progress that must continue. It is in Ukraine’s best interest to build up such capabilities not only to keep its waters and the shipping lanes safe but also to fortify trust among its Black Sea neighbors. Russia is not solely responsible for the minefield in the Black Sea, as Ukraine has also laid naval mines off its coast to defend itself from a potential Russian amphibious assault. But if Ukraine cooperates with its Western allies on developing a more transparent and timely system for reporting loose mines and helps clear them before they inflict damage to civilian ships, it will weaken Russia’s campaign to discredit Ukraine as an irresponsible proliferator of naval mines.

Turkish objections versus interests

The formal inclusion of Turkey as a member of Bulgaria and Romania’s joint minesweeping task force could be the first step toward eventually establishing an official NATO presence in the Black Sea. The trilateral initiative will undoubtedly help improve conditions for safe maritime passage north of the Turkish Straits; but given the sheer number of mines in these waters, a Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group (SNMCMG) for the Black Sea — akin to the ones that already operate in the Baltic, North Atlantic, and Mediterranean — might be necessary to ensure that the littoral states have the resources for effective minesweeping operations. Turkey has historically opposed any extended stay in the Black Sea by NATO warships from outside the region on the grounds that this would violate the Montreux Convention. And after Russia launched its re-invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Turkish government tightened those restrictions further, invoking Montreux’s wartime clause, and preventing any outside naval ships from entering. In line with this ban, Ankara announced its refusal to allow the two aforementioned British MCMVs gifted to Ukraine into the Black Sea. Furthermore, Defense Minister Yaşar Güler stated that the new trilateral initiative will be closed to the three signatories, at least until “the conditions are formed in due course [to allow for additional countries to join],” signaling that the current government will maintain its middleman approach to the war.

Despite Turkish opposition to the inclusion of non-Black Sea NATO members, a properly supported, multinational Black Sea minesweeping force could boost Turkey’s geopolitical standing as well. Among the non-belligerent Black Sea navies, the Turkish Navy is arguably the most powerful, with 11 minehunters currently in service, which could provide it leverage to be the primary contributor to the standing group. Given the potential scale of the issue, however, the current composition of the trilateral task force — three MCMVs and one command-and-control ship — may not be enough without further NATO contributions to quickly disable these mines. Other than political will, there is nothing stopping NATO members and non-NATO littoral states from negotiating a structure of the standing group that would fit the Montreux Convention’s parameters for the ships’ tonnage, type, and deployment time, though an amendment or renegotiation for a new treaty might become necessary — a not-insignificant obstacle in its own right.

Despite growing cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine, Ankara is determined to maintain its role as a mediator in the war and continuously refuses to fully abandon its relations with Moscow. With a third of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet destroyed, an increased NATO presence in the Black Sea could endanger the currently more Turkey-favorable regional balance of power between the navies of the North Atlantic Alliance, Russia, and Turkey itself that Ankara seeks to maintain. To ensure that the Russo-Turkish partnership survives for the time being, Turkey is still unlikely to acquiesce to calls to budge on its interpretation of the Montreux Convention, even for defensive vessels like minehunters.


Naval mines will remain a threat even after hostilities in Ukraine end, and Turkey and its fellow Black Sea neighbors will have to conduct massive mine-clearing operations eventually. The war is unlikely to end anytime soon, and Turkey will likely continue its policy of not entirely alienating Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But it is clearly in the security interests of all of the Black Sea’s littoral states — not to mention international shippers, global importers of regional goods, and beyond — to formulate a cooperative framework for mitigating the threat posed by naval mines in these waters. The time has come for NATO to reconsider a standing Alliance fleet in the Black Sea.


Hotaka Nakamura is a Contributor for Janes and a former intern with MEI’s Black Sea Program. He previously worked as an assistant director at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and has also written for The Diplomat and the Center for Maritime Strategy’s The MOC.

Photo by YASIN AKGUL / AFP) (Photo by YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.