Side-Stepping Turkey: Using Minesweepers to Increase Allied Presence in the Black Sea

NATO Ships in Black Sea

Up until this summer, the Ukraine grain deal was working — for everyone, at least, except Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow suspended the agreement in July, citing the ongoing challenges exporting commodities. Since then, the Russian military has attacked Ukrainian grain export infrastructure. Both the United States and Turkey now have an interest in getting Ukrainian grain flowing the world again, but they disagree on whether Russia should be rewarded in the process. Among other things, Putin is demanding the return of Russian banks to the SWIFT international payment system. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who just met with him in Sochi, Russia, seems inclined to agree.

As a result, it is in America’s interests to explore other ways to export grain from Ukraine. A new alternative route that excludes Russia would minimize — to the extent possible — Russian leverage over global food prices. The need to ensure the safe passage of ships through this second grain corridor also creates an opportunity to bolster U.S. and allied presence in the Black Sea, without running afoul of Turkish neutrality. The United States should work with European allies to transfer minesweepers to Romania — a NATO member and Black Sea nation that Turkey has close relations with — to establish this new route. To account for drifting mines, the United States and its European allies should consider assisting Romania with clearance divers or loaning clearance diving equipment to the Romanian navy. Minesweepers are purely defensive and do not pose a threat to the Russian navy. They are also needed to remove moored mines and assist in removing drifting mines, which both threaten commercial shipping.

These ships could transit the Bosporus and Dardanelles, which Turkey controls, without violating the Montreux Convention and could facilitate the export of grain through a route that hugs the western coast of the Black Sea. They could subsequently exercise with U.S. and European assets operating in the Black Sea to support NATO’s response to the invasion. The sensor data from these assets could be shared with Black Sea members via a new data fusion center, which could be used to host future exercises in the area with NATO’s Black Sea members and build upon these efforts to export grain to the world.



Turkish Fence-Sitting 

Historically, Washington has been deferential to Turkish views in the Black Sea region. Ankara, for its part, scrupulously enforces the Montreux Convention, the 1936 agreement regulating the movement of ships from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. At the outset of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Ankara barred the transit of Russian warships through the straits and, critically, has used its wide latitude to close the straits to all foreign warships, including non-belligerent NATO allied vessels.

The result is that, despite Russia losing ships to Ukrainian missiles, the naval balance of power in the Black Sea remains in Moscow’s favor. While Turkey, a NATO member, appears poised to emerge from this conflict as the Black Sea’s preeminent naval player, this won’t necessarily help NATO so long as Turkey remains committed to balancing its relations with Russia and the West.

Alongside other concerns, Turkish officials are worried about unintended escalation with Russia and fear that unrestricted warfare in the Black Sea could lead to a direct confrontation with NATO. Ankara has tacitly allowed Russia to use civilian ships to continue to supply its forces in Syria and a fleet of civilian ships that use deceptive practices to illegally export plundered Ukrainian commodities to the world. Some of these actions may violate the spirit of the Montreux Convention, but they have given Ankara the deniability it needs to let Russian shipping go on its way.

Since the conflict in Ukraine began, Turkey has sought to escape the ire of Moscow and to “fence-sit,” opportunistically engaging with both sides to advance its domestic interests. This approach has allowed Ankara to sell Ukraine weapons, on the one hand, and indirectly help Russia escape Western sanctions, thereby assisting its war effort, on the other. Russia and Turkey have long maintained symbiotic relations, and these have only improved as a result of the war.

Ankara is an energy importer, while Russia is an exporter. Turkey is also a tourist destination, favored by Russian tourists that now have few alternatives for travel. These economic and energy synergies complement Turkish foreign policy vis-à-vis the Black Sea: Turkey and Russia manage tensions to prevent escalation. Ankara has sought to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, for example, while protecting its relationship with Ukraine, with which it has established considerable cooperation on defense projects ranging from drone production to naval corvette production.

Now, Ankara’s preference would be for Russia to return to the United Nations–sponsored grain deal. This would give Ankara the comfort of a Russian security guarantee for international shipping. It would also vindicate Turkey’s neutrality. As a member of the grain deal, Turkey could advocate for Russia’s position on the SWIFT payment system while also establishing itself as an honest broker on ship inspection for alleged contraband. Turkey could also demand concessions from Russia on natural gas exports and payments while Erdogan could credibly claim to have resolved a global crisis and helped Ukraine. This could benefit him both domestically and on the global stage at a time when the Turkish economy remains troubled and Ankara’s relations with much of the world remain frayed.


Sidestepping Turkish Concerns

Turkey has created enough policy flexibility that it can use both Ukrainian and Russian weakness to its advantage. However, a secondary grain route would undercut Turkish leverage with Russia and with its NATO allies. This gives the United States and its European allies an opportunity to manage the grain crisis and increase NATO presence in the Black Sea, while mitigating the more dangerous effects of Turkey’s fence-sitting.

The Ukrainian government, for its part, has thrown its support behind a second route starting in Odessa and hugging the western coast of four littoral states: Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Kyiv has also offered to cover insurance costs for vessels transiting this route. In doing so, it would prevent Moscow from using selective threats to raise the price of shipping to prohibitive levels.

Ankara has signaled its discomfort with this secondary route and is negotiating directly with Moscow for a return to the initial deal or for an alternative secondary export route that would see Russia export grain to Turkey. This proposed arrangement is controversial, largely because some of the grain is suspected to come from Ukrainian territory the Russian military occupies. Under this arrangement, grain exports would be subsidized by Qatar, processed into flour in Turkey, and then sent to Africa. Turkish leadership has not sanctioned this Russia-backed initiative, but following his meeting with Putin in Sochi last week, Erdogan strongly suggested that negotiations about this arrangement are ongoing.

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, speaking from Kyiv in August 2023, reiterated the country’s opposition to a deal that would obviate the need for a Russia-backed agreement. “We know that alternative ways are currently being sought for grain export,” he said. “However, we also see that these ways cannot be an alternative to the original initiative and contain risks.” The main risk, according to a senior Turkish official, is that a secondary route “could escalate the situation in the Black Sea and spill the war into the territories of NATO countries, which we obviously don’t want.”

Despite this, though, Ankara did agree to language that could be used to empower NATO’s Black Sea riparian states. Article 79 of NATO’s Vilnius Summit Communiqué from 2023 states that:

The Black Sea region is of strategic importance for the Alliance. This is further highlighted by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. We underline our continued support to Allied regional efforts aimed at upholding security, safety, stability and freedom of navigation in the Black Sea region including, as appropriate, through the 1936 Montreux Convention. We will further monitor and assess developments in the region and enhance our situational awareness, with a particular focus on the threats to our security and potential opportunities for closer cooperation with our partners in the region, as appropriate.

The statement is clearly consensus language. However, the focus on enhancing situational awareness is an important point of convergence that could support a broad effort to help build out allied Black Sea navies.



From Wheatfields Through Minefields

Romania, which abuts the Black Sea and also borders Ukraine, has suffered from the fallout of the Russo-Ukrainian war and has sought to augment its defenses. The government has engaged with contractors from both France and the Netherlands for four new corvettes and has reportedly expressed interest in purchasing second-hand British minesweepers. These efforts have moved in parallel with the government’s efforts to bolster the country’s air force. A concerted effort to help Romania get what it wants — more second-hand minesweepers, clearance divers, and equipment — is a straightforward way to enhance allied presence in the Black Sea and to help patrol the area for mines, thereby easing the flow of grain.

Mines in the Black Sea have helped Russia blockade Ukrainian ports and have menaced international shipping. As Tom Wester and Joe Mancini wrote in these pages, “Russia continues to lay mines in the Black Sea [and] a year and a half into the conflict in the Black Sea, mines have again demonstrated that they are a lethal cornerstone of sea power.” If the United States and Europe worked in concert to identify minesweeping ships that could be transferred or sold to Romania, these vessels could then transit the straits legally. These ships could be used to augment the Romanian navy’s minesweeping vessels and allied clearance divers, so that they could clear both moored and drifting mines in the Black Sea and those that obstruct international shipping. To do so, these ships would travel ahead of ships carrying grain and use mine-hunting sonar to identify a clear path for ships.

Minesweeping ships are purely defensive and therefore would not be as risky as providing Black Sea powers with warships for the armed escort civilian ships in the area. This should assuage Ankara and be a point of potential cooperation, rather than yet another point of friction between Turkey and its NATO allies. Once transferred and in Romania, these ships (and potentially clearance divers) could be used for a series of bilateral exercises between U.S. and European forces deployed in country, in neighboring countries, or flying over the Black Sea.

These bilateral exercises can augment NATO’s minesweeping capabilities and are a way to conduct exercises with NATO members without needing Turkey’s official sanction.  The obvious benefits of bilateral exercises have tangential benefits for NATO more broadly and could help augment NATO’s regional capabilities in the longer term. The data from these ships’ sensors should be fused with the aerial surveillance intelligence NATO and its member states collect during daily flights over the Black Sea. This data could be used to enhance situational awareness about threats to international shipping and be an important mechanism for the allies to share information about Russian Black Sea military operations currently and long into the future.



The Turkish government has a clear and easy-to-understand policy vis-à-vis Russia, the Black Sea, and the Russo-Ukrainian war. Ankara is keen to play both sides, take advantage of international sanctions to enhance its own economic interests and broker a ceasefire to manage regional escalation. As a result, Turkey benefits from keeping NATO out of the Black Sea while accommodating Russian interests and seeking concessions from Moscow. In this sense, Turkish fence-sitting has been a success for Ankara.

It is not, however, in U.S. or European interests. America’s deferential approach to Turkish policy vis-à-vis the Black Sea is understandable. However, total U.S. deference to Ankara makes little sense. The way forward is to scrupulously follow the terms of the Montreux Convention while using Romanian minesweepers to enhance NATO’s Black Sea presence, thereby getting Ukrainian grain flowing once again.



Aaron Stein is the chief content officer at War on the Rocks.

Image: NATO Allied Maritime Command