By Hilmi Hacaloglu, Umut Colak and Ezel Sahinkaya
As Turkish military dive teams this week safely defused their third floating naval mine in Turkish waters since March 26, some maritime experts said the explosives still pose a threat to Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait.
On March 19, Russia’s FSB intelligence service said 420 naval mines were drifting freely in the Black Sea after breaking loose in a storm. The FSB says Ukrainian forces set the mines, but Ukrainian authorities dismissed that accusation as disinformation.
Ukrainian authorities accused Russia of planting the naval mines in the Black Sea and using them as “uncontrolled drifting ammunition.”
“If these mines were broken loose as claimed, the risk continues even in the Bosphorus [Strait],” Bora Serdar, a retired staff colonel from the Turkish Naval Forces, told VOA. “It wouldn’t be a surprise if at least a few mines went in the strait.”
A regional threat
On March 26, Turkey, a NATO member, detected the first stray mine on the Black Sea coast of Istanbul near its Bosphorus Strait. The second one was found off the coast of Igneada, near the Bulgarian border, on March 28.
Turkish authorities announced Turkish Underwater Defense teams safely detonated both mines.
“Our mine hunter vessels and naval patrolling ships are all vigilant,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on March 29, adding that Turkey is working on identifying the source of floating naval mines.
The Bosphorus Strait connects the Black Sea with the Marmara, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean seas and runs through Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul. It is a major shipping route for Black Sea countries.
Besides Turkey, Romania neutralized a mine on March 28 after fishermen first spotted it and reported it to the naval forces.
On Thursday, defense ministers of Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine met virtually at Turkey’s request to discuss the threat.
“The importance of cooperation in the Black Sea for peace, calm, and stability, including the fight against the mines, was emphasized at the meeting,” Turkish Defense Minister Akar said in a statement.
Some analysts argue that the stray mines in the Black Sea are part of propaganda wars between Russia and Ukraine.
“I think these stray mines are part of a Russian operation to create some confusion,” said Yoruk Isik, Istanbul-based geopolitical analyst and head of the Bosphorus Observer consultancy.
“Russia may have dropped a few naval mines around the Bosphorus, perhaps from somewhere close to Bulgaria, to reach the strait,” he told VOA.
According to Isik, Russia’s motivations include distracting observers from its actions in Ukraine as several countries, including the United States and Germany, accused Russian forces of committing war crimes.
Isik says that Russia also might have used the naval mines to put Kyiv in “a difficult position in the international arena as the stray mines would appear as [though] Ukraine is hindering international trade” in the Black Sea.
On the other hand, some experts think that Ukraine might have used the naval mines to prevent Russia’s actions and bring more international actors into the war, including Turkey.
Turker Erturk, a former Turkish Naval Academy commander, says that Moscow’s war plans included an amphibious operation near Odesa.
“Russia would never choose anything that would limit this operation,” Erturk told VOA.
Ukraine’s primary goal of setting mines afloat, he speculated, would be to show that safe navigation in the Black Sea has disappeared.
“The stray mines would create a perception that there is no safe passage in the Bosphorus, an international waterway. What would this perception inevitably trigger? It would trigger an international naval force under the auspices of NATO, EU, or U.N. to go to the Black Sea,” Erturk said.
“This would lead to the ‘de facto’ violation of the Montreux Convention. It looks like a provocation to me,” Erturk added.
NATO’s London-based Shipping Centre — the official link between NATO and international merchant shipping — released an advisory Monday saying, “the threat of additional drifting mines cannot be ruled out.”
A United Kingdom Ministry of Defense intelligence update on April 3 also warned that mines in the Black Sea “pose a serious risk to maritime activity.”
“Though the origin of such mines remains unclear and disputed, their presence is almost certainly due to Russian naval activity in the area and demonstrates how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is affecting neutral and civilian interests,” the UK intelligence update said.
Turkey has control of the passage of naval vessels through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits under the 1936 Montreux Convention.
On March 26, Turkey’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry banned fishing at night until further notice.
Fishermen say that because they are concerned about the floating mines, they assign one person to the front of their boat for mine control.
“We fear that the stray mine will hit us,” Recep Koc, who has worked as a fisherman for 38 years in Istanbul’s Sariyer district, told VOA.
“While we were watching our boat so that nothing would wrap around its propeller, we are now trying to pay attention to the mines if they crash or explode,” Koc added.