Yordan Bozhilov: The agreement between Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria to fight mines in the Black Sea is quite different from the idea of a NATO flotilla

Floating mines in the Black Sea are a risk to shipping and economically damaging to coastal states

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship, 11 January 2023

Yordan Bozhilov is the founder and director of the Sofia Security Forum. He is a former Deputy Minister of Defence of the Republic of Bulgaria. He was a career civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, holding various positions between 1992 and 2013, including Head of International Organisations and Arms Control, Director of International Cooperation, Deputy Director for Security and Defence Policy and Chief of the Political Cabinet of the Minister of Defence. He has also served as an advisor on defence and security issues to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

Yordan Bozhilov is a lecturer at Sofia University. His articles on European defence, Black Sea security and other topics have been published in Bulgaria and abroad.

The Bridge of Friendship spoke to Yordan Bozhilov about the agreement between Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria to establish a mine action naval group in the Black Sea. The mission is to ensure safe navigation after the war in Ukraine led to numerous incidents with floating mines and merchant ships.

Reasons for the trilateral agreement on action against floating mines in the Black Sea

Mr Bozhilov, how do you comment on the fact that this agreement to clear mines in the Black Sea was concluded between Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, almost two years after the war in Ukraine began?

First of all, free-floating mines are an extreme risk to shipping in the Black Sea. More than 80 mines have already been identified and destroyed. Most of them have been destroyed in Ukrainian territorial waters and economic zone. Several mines have been destroyed by Romanian forces, several by Bulgarian forces. There are mines that have reached Turkish territorial waters. And several ships were hit by floating mines and received damage.

From this point of view, clearing the Black Sea of free-floating mines is of the utmost importance. We can already see that, because of the uncertainty in the region, first of all the war that is being fought and then the mines, the potential risk of environmental disasters, all this is affecting economic activities. In the Black Sea, ship insurance has risen enormously, which is a problem for business. Hardly any new ships enter the Black Sea. It is mainly old ships that enter, which creates additional risk. Therefore, any initiative aimed at addressing existing risks and threats is very positive.

Why this initiative by Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey? Firstly, these are Black Sea NATO countries. Secondly, these countries have real capabilities to clear the Black Sea of free-floating mines and, on the other hand, they are NATO powers. Because of Turkey’s position of not allowing non-Black Sea and NATO countries’ ships in the Black Sea, the only possibility for any operation is for the three NATO Black Sea countries Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey to join forces.

Why this is not an operation under NATO auspices

It is noteworthy that these are the three NATO members in the Black Sea region. However, this is not an operation under NATO auspices. Why is it not a NATO operation?

Exactly. The reason is the position of Turkey, which believes that, in a period of war, the Black Sea, according to the Montreux Convention, should be closed to the entry of non-Black Sea ships of non-Black Sea states. Why?

According to the Turkish understanding, this reduces the possibility of escalation of the conflict on the other side. This Turkish position applies not only to non-Black Sea NATO states, but also to Russian ships that are not on record as being permanently based in the Black Sea. From this point of view, Turkey is also presenting this position as a way of limiting Russia’s naval capabilities and thus moving towards a peace agreement.

In any case, the mines are an extreme problem and require a lot of resources to search for, explore and destroy, creating a problem for shipping, and for this reason I welcome the conclusion of this agreement and the creation of an operation of the three Black Sea states. Incidentally, I know that this issue has been in the works for quite a long time.

Comparison with the 2016 proposal for a NATO flotilla in the Black Sea

In 2016, there was an idea to create a joint fleet of the three countries or a joint fleet in the Black Sea, but then this idea fell through. What is the same now and what is different?

In 2016, an initiative was taken to create a Black Sea flotilla. The idea was for a Black Sea coordinated operation involving not only NATO countries but also Ukraine and Georgia. And the operation then was in no way limited to certain activities. This flotilla was to be a naval component and was to be open to participation by other NATO countries. For certain reasons, Bulgaria did not support entry into the Black Sea flotilla and effectively blocked the whole initiative, although there were preliminary agreements between Bulgaria, between the Bulgarian Ministry of Defence and the Romanian Ministry of Defence. Ukraine had also expressed a willingness to join this.

Unfortunately, the way in which Bulgaria refused to join in was quite rude to our allied friends from Romania. Remember that Klaus Iohannis arrived in Bulgaria. He spoke about this initiative first with President Plevneliev, who supported it. But then Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said that he would not support it and wanted to have boats, sailboats, etc. in the Black Sea. We know what might have been behind those words and why the Prime Minister did not support the initiative. But, in any case, relations between Bulgaria and Romania have suffered a great deal from the way in which the Bulgarian position has been stated.

What is different now in comparison to 2016?

That is fine, but now we are getting to a joint operation of the three countries.

Now there is something quite different from the flotilla. The flotilla was not limited to any particular activity. It was to be a naval component that was part of NATO. This operation that is now being set up is solely and exclusively to search for and destroy free-floating mines in the Black Sea. It has a very clearly defined mandate. It does not target any particular country, it does not extend to other naval activities.

Photo: Turkish Defence Minister Yașar Guler, his Romanian counterpart Angel Tîlvar and Bulgarian Deputy Defence Minister Atanas Zapryanov sign the agreement on the establishment of a naval mine countermeasures group between the three countries in the Black Sea (Source: YouTube)

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