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Maritime security in the Black Sea is an international problem

The West – with or without the US Navy – needs to return to the Black Sea to help break the maritime blockade, protect humanitarian shipping to fight global famine, and, not least, uphold universal Freedom of Navigation.
Ships grain corridor Black Sea
Ships await grain loading in Black Sea ports in July 2023. Photo: Ministry of Infrastructure
Maritime security in the Black Sea is an international problem

NATO warns of new risks for escalation after Moscow pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. According to the White House, Russia is believed to have laid additional sea mines in the approaches to Ukrainian ports. The Black Sea Fleet (BSF) has been deployed to interdict civilian shipping bound for Ukraine. Russia has also started relentless attacks against Ukrainian ports. Massive missile and UAV strikes have damaged more than 26 Ukrainian port infrastructure facilities and five civilian vessels during the last 10 days alone

The termination of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) did not create a new security situation. It only reverted to the situation one year ago.

The Black Sea security deteriorated the moment the last non-Black Sea NATO warship departed on 2 January 2022. It worsened further in February when the Russian Navy announced “live-fire exercise areas” over a wide swath of the Black Sea and the majority of the Sea of Azov, effectively constraining navigation to Ukraine’s commercial seaports from 13 February 2022.

When the full-scale war started on 24 February, approximately 2000 seafarers were stranded aboard 94 vessels in Ukrainian ports.

On 11 March, NATO’s Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) issued an urgent warning to ships operating in the Black Sea: “The warning said the risk of Russia directly attacking commercial shipping and damage from collateral damage is considered VERY HIGH.”

In the same statement, NATO warned of a Russian” “Naval Exercise Area” around the approaches to Novorossiysk, Russia’s largest port and a critical oil hub for the country. “The risk of collateral damage or direct hits on Civilian Shipping in the North-Western Black Sea area is considered VERY HIGH,” said NATO.

There are strong indicators that the intensity of military operations along the Ukrainian Black Sea coastline and in the Gulf of Odesa is increasing. The risk of GPS jamming, AIS spoofing, communications jamming, electronic interference, and cyber-attacks in the area is considered high. Harassment and diversion of shipping in the area cannot be excluded.

A War Risk Area and Mine Areas have been in force in the Northern Black Sea since March 2022.

Russia has been conducting maritime warfare in the Northern Black Sea from the first day of the full-scale war. Its operations have resulted in collateral damage, the closure of commercial ports and a stop in maritime trade.

On 19 July Russia announced that it will deem all ships heading for Ukrainian waters to be potentially carrying weapons, and their flag countries as parties to the war on the Ukrainian side. Ukraine reciprocated the following day and issued a separate navigational warning to shipping in the Black Sea declaring civilian vessels heading for Russian ports or Russia-occupied Ukrainian ports as those carrying military cargo with all associated risks.

International maritime law states that vessels suspected of carrying military equipment may be boarded and searched, and civilian vessels belonging to the opposing side may be seized. Attacks against civilian shipping, however, are illegal in most cases.

Ukraine has been exposed to a limited maritime blockade (Sea of Azov) since April 2018 and a full blockade since February 2022.

Maritime trade and security are by default international in nature. Maritime transport is the backbone of international trade and the global economy. Over 80% of the volume of international trade in goods is carried by sea, and the percentage is even higher for most developing countries. It connects continents, countries, and people. Maritime trade is fundamental to the global economy and, therefore, our security, stability, and prosperity. Since the transport mainly takes place outside the territorial waters of coastal states – on high seas – it is regulated by international law.

This is why maritime security in the Black Sea – or rather the lack thereof – has global repercussions.

The maritime blockade is:

  1. undermining Ukraine’s economic viability and, therefore, its sovereignty and independence
  2. increasing global famine and
  3. increasing global costs of living, which means increasing the risk of demonstrations, riots, extremism and fall of government
  4. if unchallenged, undermining universal Freedom of Navigation worldwide.

After a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council on Wednesday, NATO announced that the Alliance and Allies are stepping up surveillance and reconnaissance in the Black Sea region, including with maritime patrol aircraft and drones. Its response, however, fell short of deploying any of its standing maritime groups to the Black Sea to clear mines, ensure Freedom of Navigation and escort civilian vessels.

The Alliance notes that Russia’s new warning area in the Black Sea, within Bulgaria’s exclusive economic zone, has created new risks for miscalculation and escalation, as well as serious impediments to freedom of navigation.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: Russia bears full responsibility for its dangerous and escalatory actions in the Black Sea region. Russia must stop weaponising hunger, and threatening the world’s most vulnerable people with food instability. Russia’s actions also pose substantial risks to the stability of the Black Sea region, which is of strategic importance to NATO. Allies are stepping up support to Ukraine and increasing our vigilance.”

The decision not to deploy maritime forces into theatre came amidst Russian signalling.

According to the UK Defence Intelligence, the BSF has altered its posture since 17 July when Russia pulled out of the BSGI. A warship has been deployed to the southern Black Sea, patrolling the shipping lane between the Bosporus and Odesa.

While it is believed that it will form part of a task group tasked to intercept commercial vessels heading to Ukraine, it must also be seen as a signal to NATO as the Alliance is considering its military options. The maritime blockade of Ukraine has been ongoing since before the full-scale invasion started. Any change to the Black Sea Fleet posture is more likely linked to ongoing Western discussions to start escorting civilian vessels bound for Ukraine.

The issue of transit of ships in the Black Sea will be discussed during a possible future meeting between Presidents of Russia and Turkiye, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said. The idea that Turkish ships could escort Ukrainian grain supplies in the Black Sea is impossible and dangerous,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said on Friday.

According to John Kirby, the Strategic Communications Coordinator of the US National Security Council:

The US does not discuss the possibility of escorting ships with Ukrainian grain in the Black Sea. There is no active discussion about sending warships to the Black Sea now. This will only increase tension and increase the possibility of a potential conflict between the West and Russia, and this is not what we want.”

The statement means that the US is also blocking NATO from deploying any of its maritime forces to the Black Sea.

The US decision to remain detached from the maritime security situation is odd given the nature of the task. A maritime force would be tasked to uphold international law: Freedom of Navigation and the protection of humanitarian shipping in conflict zones. Neither constitutes a threat to the Russian Federation.

The present US policy is, however, also at odds with its past actions when its national interests have been threatened.

In the article “NATO Convoys Can Protect Ukraine’s Grain Harvest From Putin” in The Washington Post, Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), argues that the Russian maritime blockade is illegal under international law. A state of war has not been declared. The blockade limits the universal freedom of navigation on the high seas. Additionally, Putin has also weaponized hunger by cutting global food supplies.

He argues in favour of establishing convoys in the Black Sea under the broad provisions of international law that permit enforcing the freedom of international waters and allow the protection of humanitarian shipping in conflict zones. Since the UN is rendered unable to take a lead role because of Russia’s veto right he argues that the mission should be undertaken either by NATO or by a “coalition of the willing” led by the US.

Unfortunately, NATO has also been rendered unable to take a lead role because of US “veto right” (or need for consensus).

Media reports, however, that the United Kingdom is negotiating with other countries to form a coalition of the willing that might send warships to the Black Sea to break the maritime embargo.

Since the US is unwilling to deploy the US Navy out of fear of a broader confrontation, the West must put its hope in the United Kingdom taking the lead of a European coalition of the willing.

Europe has enough destroyers, frigates and minesweepers/-hunters to form the two maritime tasks forces needed to solve the mission. Additionally, the maritime force would need air cover and air surveillance.

A coalition of the willing might consider establishing a Maritime Exclusion Zone to constrain the movements of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the flight of its maritime aviation to avoid accidents and aggressive manoeuvres at close encounters.

It should also establish a route through the territorial waters of Türkiye, Bulgaria and Romania to reduce the likelihood of Russian and European Armed Forces operating close to each other, increasing the risks of incidents and escalation.

For the grain transport to continue, however, Ukraine also urgently needs Air Defence to protect its ports and infrastructure. Vessels entering Ukrainian ports need proper protection. The West urgently needs to step up its delivery of the much-needed air defence means. Additionally, stationing Western warships outside Ukrainian ports and territorial waters might help reduce the threat from Russian missiles and UAVs.

Will Europe be able to establish a maritime coalition of the willing?

Maybe. But it will be an uphill battle. Türkiye has already declined a Ukrainian request for it to escort civilian vessels in the Black Sea. It is balancing its national interests with Russian demands and Ukrainian calls for support. Germany has until now, not demonstrated any will to confront Russia. France will probably join a British endeavour if it finds it to be in its national interest to do so. Bulgaria is not likely to join the endeavour given its relationship with Russia.

The other maritime NATO member states – Albania, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Spain – have various maritime capabilities altogether. Some – like Finland and Norway might decline to participate because of their own security concerns given their shared borders with Russia. Some will remain committed to protecting European maritime energy infrastructure in the North Sea. Greece might decline for concerns over Türkiye. Some – like Albania and Montenegro – will decline for lack of relevant maritime capabilities.

Meanwhile, Türkiye sees itself as a responsible party to the Montreux Convention and has denied requests to sail any warships through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

Ukraine asked Türkiye to close the straits to Russian warships on 24 February, highlighting the Turkish role in keeping regional peace. The Turkish government agreed on Feb. 28, 2022. Türkiye chose, however, to close the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to warships from any country, whether or not they border the Black Sea, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Montreux Convention does not limit non-Black Sea countries’ right to send warships to the Black Sea. Türkiye does. Since war has not been declared, the provisions laid down in Articles 10 to 18 prevail.

The Turkish government appears to have exercised its rights under Article 21, which states that passage of warships should be wholly at the discretion of the Turkish Government when it feels itself to be threatened with imminent danger of war.

The people who are saying that NATO will not be able to escort grain shipments in the Black Sea because the Montreux Convention gives Türkiye the right to say “NO”…are probably the same folks who said Türkiye would never allow Sweden to join NATO.” Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

This means that a Western maritime task force might enter the Black Sea to protect humanitarian shipping and uphold Freedom of Navigation provided that Türkiye is convinced that it is in its national interest to support the operation.

Türkiye – not Russia – might prove to be the problem.

The West – with or without the US Navy – needs to return to the Black Sea to help break the maritime blockade, protect humanitarian shipping to fight global famine and, not least, uphold universal Freedom of Navigation.

Failure to engage will have local, regional and global repercussions.

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