Black Sea mine sweeping aids a subtle convergence of Turkish-US policies

A Romanian Special Forces squad is seen on one of the decks of Romanian frigate 'King Ferdinand' during the Sea Shield 2024 NATO-led drill in the Black Sea, outside Constanta, Romania, April 16, 2024. Inquam Photos/Eduard Vinatoru via REUTERS

The war in Ukraine has elevated the Black Sea’s geopolitical significance, generating rich analyses advocating greater NATO-U.S. engagement with the region. There have been calls for the development of a NATO Black Sea strategy and the deployment of standing naval forces. In the U.S. Congress, legislation was introduced and debated to develop a comprehensive U.S. strategy for the Black Sea, culminating in Section 1247 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 instructing the National Security Council (NSC) with the task.

The strategy aims to overcome the United States’ long-standing inaction against Russian expansionism and enhance U.S. support for Black Sea regional security, which is threatened in several ways. Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have all suffered territorial challenges. Public opinion in these countries, as well as in Armenia and other parts of Russia’s near abroad, reflects that their populations feel threatened. Furthermore, Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from the grain deal in July 2023 has been followed by an uptick in its malign activities such as the laying of sea mines and harassment of merchant shipping, dramatically undermining freedom of navigation in the Black Sea. This jeopardizes vital trade routes critical to the national economies of the riparian countries, making them vulnerable to Russian influence and interference.

This Black Sea strategy would envisage a comprehensive U.S. approach to regional security, calling for policies to address these challenges by strengthening democratic governance, energy independence, and economic prosperity in the region, as well as increasing coordination with NATO and the European Union. However, moving forward, winning Turkey’s buy-in will be critical.

No Black Sea strategy without Turkey

Turkey has been protective of its role as the custodian of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates access to the Black Sea for military and merchant shipping. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in line with Article 19 of the convention, Turkey closed the straits linking the Aegean/Mediterranean Seas to the Black Sea to the warring parties’ navies. Additionally, the Turkish minister of foreign affairs “warned all riparian and non-riparian countries not to let warships go through the straits,” effectively denying Russia the right to recall the ships belonging to its Black Sea fleet and also closing the door to NATO warships.

Until recently, this policy has had a dual impact. It indirectly contributed to Ukraine’s success in downgrading the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF), most dramatically with the sinking of the Moskva in April 2022. Russia’s inability to replenish its BSF in response to Ukraine’s skillful use of missiles resulted in a third of its warships being lost. This, in turn, compelled Russia to relocate its vessels away from its main Sevastopol naval base further to the east, undermining its potential to enforce a naval blockade on Ukraine.

On the other hand, this policy also limits Turkey’s non-littoral allies’ access to the Black Sea. For example, U.S. warships have not sailed into the Black Sea since 2021, making it the only sea where the United States does not enjoy full freedom of navigation. Turkey also refused permission for two British minesweepers donated to Ukraine to pass through the Turkish Straits and access the Black Sea. Similarly, in November 2023, the commander of the Turkish Navy explicitly declared that Turkey did “not want NATO or America in the Black Sea.”

This position is consistent with Turkey’s historical stance. Turkey strongly resisted U.S. efforts to extend NATO’s Active Endeavour maritime surveillance operation from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea in 2005. In 2008, during the crisis following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, two U.S. military hospital ships were denied access due to tonnage restrictions under the Montreux Convention. Also in line with the terms of the convention, Turkey has had a long record of resisting any extended stay by non-riparian, including NATO, warships in the Black Sea. This policy, shaped by concerns of preventing regional crises from escalating and maintaining a fragile balance with Russia, has caused Turkey’s loyalty to be perceived “at best, as ambiguous and, at worst, suspicious” by some of its NATO allies, especially the United States.

A subtle convergence

However, since Turkey’s decision to finally approve Sweden’s NATO membership, a subtle but important convergence has occurred between the Turkish and NATO-U.S. positions on the Black Sea. In January, the defense ministers of Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey agreed to form a trilateral Mine Countermeasures (MCM) task force, leaving the door open to non-NATO riparian states, NATO’s Standing Maritime Groups, and non-Black Sea allies to join their activities. This operation is critical for securing Ukraine’s ability to continue exporting its grain and aims to protect freedom of navigation and trade in the Black Sea. These are objectives in line with those that the U.S. Black Sea strategy aspires to achieve.

This softening of the Turkish position coincides with U.S. legislative efforts, reflected in at least two congressional hearings in 2021 and 2023, that show signs of the United States responding to Turkish concerns. Firstly, there is an acknowledgement of Turkey’s sensitivities resulting from its responsibilities as the “gatekeeper” of the Montreux Convention. Secondly, emphasis is put on coordination with NATO allies in the region without advocating for any standing U.S. or NATO naval presence in the Black Sea.

Moving forward, this subtle convergence may help foster a more constructive and promising trend for greater coordination in addressing hardcore military security in the Black Sea. The letter and spirit behind the MCM task force not only address Turkish concerns but also demonstrate how NATO allies can engage in an endeavor that serves NATO solidarity as well as regional interests while remaining “Montreux Convention-friendly.” However, this convergence will need to be nurtured to make the Black Sea a less “inhospitable sea” for regional countries, including Turkey, as well as NATO and the United States. The ultimate test will be in the details of the strategy that the NSC is now tasked to prepare.

These details will need to reflect pragmatism and three realities. First, even if Turkey is at times a problematic partner, it is a long-standing ally and member of NATO. It has the largest regional military, with a capacity to resist Russia second to the United States and a robust naval posture, and economy. Second, Turkey will continue to treat the letter and spirit of the Montreux Convention as sacrosanct. Third, for Turkey, history and geopolitics since Ottoman times dictate the need to prevent Russian domination of the Black Sea and sustain close ties with Ukraine as well as the region’s post-Soviet countries. These are priorities that broadly complement those of the United States and NATO. The trick is to achieve them without muddying the waters of the Black Sea and in a manner that could also serve the grander cause of reconciliation between Turkey and the United States.