Black Sea Security: Filling the Vacuum?

February 02, 2005

Until recently, the Black Sea has been somewhat marginal to NATO’s concerns, despite its strategic significance and the security threat posed by the ineffectiveness of maritime controls on potential terrorist activity. That may be about to change. Last year negotiations began among Black Sea littoral states on a possible expansion of NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour to the region. These have been extremely quiet and it is doubtful whether consultations will have quite such a radical outcome. Some degree of NATO involvement in solutions seems likely, however, while it is almost certain that Black Sea security concerns will be more effectively addressed in some way. In this article, CSEES provides background on the Black Sea security issues involved and tentatively assesses prospects.

Operation Active Endeavour

The purpose of Operation Active Endeavour (OAE) has been to perform the operational role that NATO plays in countering international terrorism in the Mediterranean. OAE was initiated in October 2001 under the command of Allied Naval Forces Southern Europe (NAVSOUTH) in Naples, Italy. Operations in the Mediterranean are carried out by combined ship, aircraft and submarine assets drawn in rotation from NATO’s Standing Naval Forces in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic (STANAVFORMED and STANAVFORLANT). The task of OAE is to monitor and deter terrorist-related activities in the Mediterranean. The methods of doing so include route surveillance and control of important sea passages, pipelines and harbours and provision of escorts through the Straits of Gibraltar to non-military ships from NATO member states which request them. Most importantly, since April 2003 OAE naval forces have adopted a more proactive approach, boarding vessels whose origin or cargo has been deemed suspicious by NAVSOUTH and the NATO Shipping Centre in Northwood, England.

Why the moves to extend OAE to the Black Sea? The answer lies in its status as a transit region: the Black Sea is the hub of a large number of transport corridors and pipelines connecting Europe to the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. The primary security concern is that the organised crime channels which flourish through the region may provide support to terrorist organisations, providing illegal entry and exit for their activists, and trafficking conventional arms, dual use materials and even weapons of mass destruction on their behalf.

The surveillance problems are clear. For instance, Bulgaria’s Chief of General Staff Nikola Kolev noted recently that more than 20 vessels using the Black Sea have several registrations. This enables them to change call signs frequently, which allows them to present themselves as different vessels on different occasions. Besides this, an unknown but certainly very large number of small fishing boats are used for smuggling.

Why now and not before? Security co-operation in the Black Sea has been slow to develop. It started from scratch only with the end of the Cold War and has been hampered since by a variety of rivalries, local and geo-strategic. But with the terrorist threat clearer in recent years, it has become logical for all Black Sea littoral states to take the next step and look for a regional strategy to counter potential threats to all of them.

The status quo

What has been achieved so far in Black Sea security can be divided into two categories:

Coastguard co-operation: The basis of coastguard co-operation has been a series of bilateral agreements between the littoral states—the most recent being the one between Bulgaria and Turkey in 2003. But a multilateral element has been introduced by the regional meetings at commander and expert levels which have been held annually since 2000. The high point of the process was the decision taken in 2003 to establish a Regional Integrated Co-ordination and Information Centre for the Black Sea in Bourgas, Bulgaria. The Centre is meant to improve communication and integration on a regional and international level by maintaining direct communication with all border police centres and co-ordinating joint police operations. This is an excellent idea, but the Centre has not, in fact, been established yet. Another mechanism for strengthening co-operation between law-enforcement services has, in theory, been the Organisation for Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC). BSEC’s primary focus is on trade, however, and its effectiveness even in that sphere is questionable: how it can contribute to security coordination is not obvious. Overall, the potential of regional coast guard co-operation has been largely unrealised because political commitment has been low, coastguard assets inadequate and under-funding chronic. That potential, moreover, is inherently limited because coastguard forces can operate only within the territorial waters of the state in question.

Navy co- operation: An Operational Group for Naval Co-operation in the Black Sea (BLACKSEAFOR) was established in April 2001. It includes all Black Sea littoral states. The main tasks of BLACKSEAFOR include search and rescue operations, humanitarian assistance operations, the clearing of sea mines, environmental protection and any other tasks agreed by all parties, for instance peace support operations. Units assigned to the Force remain at their permanent home base locations and come together to form the appropriate force, either in accordance with jointly prepared programmes or, in the case of ad hoc operations, in the combination deemed necessary to perform the specified tasks. BLACKSEAFOR is under the command of the Black Sea Naval Commanders Committee (BSNCC), which is also responsible for the overall planning of BLACKSEAFOR activities. Decisions are taken by consensus among Member states, and the presidency is rotated. BLACKSEAFOR is composed of naval elements only, without direct participation from air or army elements. Naval co-operation among the littoral states is also the subject of the Document on Confidence and Security Building, which has been in effect since 2003, since the Document contains explicit reference to co-operation in the field of counter-terrorism activities and the provision of assistance in fighting organised crime and illegal drug and weapons trafficking.

In naval as in coastguard cooperation, however, potential is far from realised. The Document provides no concrete mechanisms for realising the types of cooperation and assistance envisaged in it. As to BLACKSEAFOR, its great weaknesses are the temporary nature of the forces that operate within its framework and the relatively small scale of the resources that the various states feel able to commit to it. Most can afford to assign only one or at most two vessels to any given operation.

How OAE might help

Establishing an operation like OAE in the Black Sea would contribute greatly to regional security, remedying several of the shortcomings noted above. A standing naval force would be able to carry out sustained anti-terrorist monitoring and intervention, and could do so outside the territorial waters that limit national coastguard services.

But it is not clear how this could be done within the framework of BLACKSEAFOR. Not only would this require a serious upgrading of BLACKSEAFOR, in the form of a political agreement among the littoral states, the establishment of a joint standing naval force, appropriate command and control structures, logistic support arrangements and a common information database. Even an upgraded BLACKSEAFOR would still be handicapped by the shortage of naval assets available to participant states: the resources committed to the current ad hoc operations would clearly not be enough for maintenance of a standing force.

Another possible formula would be extension of OAE to the Black Sea, with non-NATO littoral states participating as members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace. This would overcome naval resource constraints, allowing ships from NATO countries outside the Black Sea area to participate in operations—and giving those operations the benefit of NATO technical support and of NATO’s experience in the Mediterranean.

A permanent naval operation would also have various useful spin-offs:

· It would benefit co-operation among naval forces in the region and provide them with an opportunity to enhance their operational compatibility.

· It would provide the new NATO member states Bulgaria and Romania with the opportunity to make another contribution to the common security in Europe and prove they are more than “security consumers”.

· It would allow maximum use of naval assets already made available through the process of modernisation—in Bulgaria’s case, the prospective acquisition of a modernised Belgian frigate and Cougar naval helicopters that are to be delivered.

· It might also favour the accelerated implementation of current modernisation projects and even the initiation of new programmes. Again for Bulgaria, the SCREEN coastal surveillance system is a case in point.


As noted above, negotiations have been quiet and almost no news has emerged from them. It remains to be seen whether they bear fruit and, if so, whether they result in an attempt to upgrade BLACKSEAFOR or a more radical approach involving the extension of OAE. Things should become clearer this summer. Meanwhile, the attitude of most of the littoral states should, prima facie, be pro-OAE. Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey are NATO members, while recent political developments have caused both Ukraine and Georgia to lean in a westward direction.

The big question mark, of course, concerns Russia, which may well be concerned about the growing influence of the USA and friends in its own backyard. Witness the remarks of an anonymous senior official of the Russian defence ministry cited by Interfax Military News Agency (Interfax-AVN) in early December. "We must proceed to specific cooperation in the BLACKSEAFOR group, which incorporates the warships of six Black Sea nations," said the official, noting that "certain forces are using the Black Sea basin for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their components, and drugs…... So we must be firmer - stop and inspect suspicious-looking vessels without waiting for the adoption of joint legislative acts. We must act like NATO ships are doing in the Mediterranean Sea while performing OAE." At the same time, reported Interfax, the official said that Russia was “categorically opposed” to extending OAE to the Black Sea: "BLACKSEAFOR participants are capable of inspecting suspicious vessels and detain them by themselves in case of necessity."

Whether the anonymous official represents Russia’s last word remains to be seen. Russia has, after all, participated quite happily in PfP operations in the past—and, incidentally, in OAE itself in the Mediterranean. On balance, however, Moscow’s attitude seems likely to remain negative. Equally, NATO attitudes to BLACKSEAFOR are dismissive, with officials privately skeptical whether the organisation could mount anything like an effective OAE-type operation. The Alliance now seems see the solution in cooperation in this sphere between its three Black Sea members, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, and is encouraging moves in this direction. Trilateral discussions on the subject, albeit very quiet ones, are reportedly underway right now. Watch this space….

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