Commercial shipping in the Black Sea has confronted restrictions ever since the full-scale aggression by Russia towards Ukraine started. One of the issues revolves around the rising number of Black Sea sea mines, which negatively impact Ukraine and the neighbouring nations, like Romania, Bulgaria, and Türkiye. Russian Federation has potentially been involved in unlawful mining without legitimate humanitarian law pushes, such as military advantage, which results in damage towards innocent passage of ships. It may be held accountable for its wrongful act under international law.
There have been multiple cases in which sea mines have endangered the security of Romania, such as the circumstance in which a mine exploded in 2023 near the coastline of the town Costinesti or on the 8th of September 2022 when the Romanian navy’s minesweeper was harmed near the port of Constantza. According to the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, the Romanian navy has reportedly offset five mines in the Black Sea.
The crisis in Bulgaria is similar to that of Romania, with different types of sea mines occurring near its coast. One was defused 200 meters from the village of Tyulenovo in January 2023; on the 2nd of July, another was defused 27 nautical miles from the Kamchia River.
In Türkiye, since 2022, the fear of sea mines has grown as fishermen fear that they will hit the mines and “disappear underwater in the blink of an eye”. The fear is established by the fact that since the attack on Ukraine, many sea mines have occurred near Rumelifeneri, a village located in the northern part of Istanbul. The most recent happening with sea mines was reported on the 5th of October 2023 by a Turkish-flagged cargo ship that struck a mine and sustained minor damage during its journey.
In October of 2023, news circulated that Russia would try to undermine the Ukrainian grain vessels by planting sea mines against civilian shipping in the Black Sea. The situation raised concerns over the prospect of disrupting commercial trade from the Black Sea and dangers to maritime traffic.
In response to the Russian inflammatory actions in the Black Sea, Bulgaria’s Defense Minister, Todor Tagarev, publicly declared that there will be a joint naval operation with NATO partners Romania and Türkiye in the Black Sea. The mine-cleaning procedure, although not a NATO operation, will merge forces from the three countries into a joint sea-mine clearance unit without the help of the other NATO allies. The mine countermeasures squadrons of Bulgaria, Romania, and Türkiye will recreate an essential role in safeguarding commercial sea traffic.
There is a severe inquiry that arises with the sea-mining circumstances in the Black Sea, such as whether the neutral states are obligated to remove and neutralise the sea-mines. A possible threat to the safety and security of the surrounding NATO countries of Romania, Bulgaria, and Türkiye prompts an analysis of the international legal system addressing maritime security and the removal of sea mines.
Sea mines can damage or destroy ships and submarines, but their immediate strategic purpose is to keep the opponent from reaching strategically important maritime locations. Unlike landmines, which are regarded as prohibited by most states worldwide due to treaty law, Shockingly, sea mines are considered lawful weapons, governed by Hague Convention VIII and customary international law with International humanitarian law.
On the contrary, Sea mines cannot be positioned by hostile parties engaged in an International Armed conflict in the internal waters, international straits, or archipelagic waters that coincide with the seas of non-conflicting states.
The International Court of Justice elaborated on this issue, remarking that “laying mines in the waters of another state without any warning or notification is not only an unlawful act but also a breach of the principles of humanitarian law underlying the Hague Convention No. VIII of 1907.” In the present scenario, unless the mines are managed types of mines that are utilised specifically to target military targets, the mine-laying state Russia must notify the neutral states of threats to innocent shipping.
There is a severe threat to marine safety and security as a result of Russia’s fierce aggression towards Ukraine and expanded geopolitical tension in the Black Sea. Despite the lack of a prohibition of mining the sea, except for the territorial sovereignty of Romania, Bulgaria and Türkiye, the hostile in the present situation, Russia may not intentionally interrupt the freedom of navigation that is enjoyed based on treaty law and customary law by the neutral states in the Black Sea.