Tactical Ships Surface

Why Ukraine’s new mine hunters might not join war

The U.K. has announced that it will transfer two ships to be Ukrainian mine hunters, but long-standing treaties may prevent their arrival.
Logan Nye Avatar
BALIKESIR, TURKIYE - JUNE 26: An aerial view of Turkish Navyâs minesweeper ship belonging to Turkish Navy Mine Squadron Command is seen as Turkish Navy Mine Squadron Command is always standing by against the threat of mines drifting in the Black Sea due to the Russia-Ukraine war in Erdek district of Balikesir, Turkiye. Turkish Navy Mine Squadron Command performs important tasks in the detection and destruction of sea mines, which can be a major threat to maritime transport. Turkish Naval Forces' Mine Squadron Command components seek, detect and destroy the naval mines for keeping the seas secure and clean. (Photo by Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The United Kingdom announced that two modern mine hunters, originally promised before the 2022 expansion of the war in Ukraine, will be transferred to Ukraine. The formerly British ships have great capabilities to make Ukrainian mine hunting at sea more safe. And Ukraine faces many dozens, potentially hundreds, of mines in the Black Sea.

The mines are choking Ukraine’s economy, especially shipments of grain, and so clearing the mines is essential to Ukraine’s future.

But, unfortunately, Ukraine might not get the ships into the Black Sea as long as the war continues. That’s because the only access to the Black Sea for ships this size is through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits. And those are closed for the duration of the war thanks to a very old treaty. (But that’s actually good for Ukraine, all things considered.)

The new Ukrainian mine hunters

The Sandown Class of mine-hunting ships comprises of three vessels in active service (HMS Penzance and Bangor) and their primary role is to work our coastline clearing mines to allow safe passage for larger forces. These ships also provide an additional layer of protection thanks to their firepower, and conduct NATO exercises with other nations. Royal Navy Photo.

The now-Ukrainian mine hunters actually commissioned in July 2023 as the Chernihiv and Cherkasy in Scotland. The big, new piece of information that came on December 10 was a United Kingdom announcement that, in addition to transferring the ships, it and Norway will form a Maritime Capability Coalition to support training, equipment, and other needs of allied forces in the Black Sea.

Basically, U.K. and Norway will support these ships and other vessels sent into the Black Sea to demine the area.

The new mine hunters have great stats. The Sandown-Class vessels displace 450 tons, are 170 feet long, and patrol at 13 knots. Their main equipment is two underwater, remote-controlled mine-disposal vehicles per ship. Each of the four total remote vehicles has a 6,500-foot fiber optic tether. But they also have high-resolution sonar and mostly non-magnetic hulls to protect them from the mines they hunt.

On the offensive side, they feature a 30mm gun.

But the mine hunters might not be allowed in

NATO ally Turkey has large control over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits during conflicts due to the 1936 Montreux Convention. Currently, Turkey has blocked all warships from nations that do not border the Black Sea as well as warships not based in the Black Sea. When Turkey announced it in February 2022, the decision effectively prevented Russia from reinforcing its Black Sea fleet, but it didn’t affect any Ukrainian vessels since Ukraine’s navy is quite small and was already entirely in the Black Sea.

Now, it is up to Turkey to decide whether the new Ukrainian mine hunters will be allowed through. In the ships’ favor, they will be based in the Black Sea now that they’re Ukrainian, and they are almost entirely defensive in nature.

Also, Turkey announced that it will likely sign a new, trilateral deal to clear the Black Sea of mines in January 2024. The deal should stabilize grain prices. It also reduces the stress of ongoing food shortages in Turkey or in African and Middle Eastern nations. But the current deal only includes Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, even though Ukrainian, Polish and Georgian officials were part of the talks.

An inside view of Turkish Navyâs minesweeper ship. (Photo by Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

But with Romania in the trilateral agreement, Turkey actually has extra incentive to let mine hunters through, something some naval commentators think is quite possible under the agreement. That’s because Romania is shopping for more mine clearance capabilities. And the U.K. just announced plans to sell two other Sandown-class mine hunters to Romania.

Romania might be the key

But with Romania in the trilateral agreement, Turkey actually has extra incentive to let mine hunters through, something some naval commentators think is quite possible under the agreement. That’s because Romania is shopping for more mine clearance capabilities. And the U.K. just announced plans to sell two other Sandown-class mine hunters to Romania.

So it may be in Turkey’s best interests to let the Romanian and even Ukrainian mine hunters through. But Turkey, often the black sheep of NATO, might want to pressure its allies for concessions before it does so. It currently threatens to block Swedish accession to NATO over a purchase of F-16s, and it has already delayed accession for months. Turkey could see passage of the Ukrainian ships as a bargaining chip for unrelated deals.

As an aside, expect Ukrainian accession to take a long time for similar reasons.

But if the Turkish-Romanian-Bulgarian deal comes to fruition, the number of vessels clearing mines in the Black Sea will climb. That would at least open more trade routes for Ukrainian grain, even if Turkey would likely allow more Russian ships as well. That would be controversial since Russian ships are alleged to carry Ukrainian grain from occupied territory. But it would alleviate world hunger, allow Ukraine to export more, and temper the need for Ukraine’s own mine hunters.

(By the way, an oft-proposed alternative to the straits is the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. But it is governed by a 1948 treaty that does not allow warships to transit the canal unless they belong to a country on the rivers or canal. Ukraine does not qualify. The Romanian ships could transit the canal, but only if all 14 other nations on the route agree.)

Logan was an Army journalist and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. Now, he’s a freelance writer and live-streamer. In addition to covering military and conflict news at WeAreTheMighty, he has an upcoming military literacy stream on Saturdays in 2024 on Twitch.tv/logannyewrites.