- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 20, 2021

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said Tuesday he is returning home for “consultations” about the rapidly deteriorating bilateral relationship, even as Russia’s military ramps up a partial blockade of the strategically vital Black Sea.

Top State Department officials cast Russia’s large-scale military drills in the Black Sea as an “unprovoked escalation” that will cut off access to key Ukrainian ports, dealing a potentially major blow to that country’s economy. At the same time, Russian troops have amassed along the border with Ukraine, fueling fears that all-out war may be on the horizon.

Russia’s provocative military actions are expected to be at the top of the agenda when Mr. Sullivan meets with top Biden administration officials soon after returning home. The Kremlin recalled its envoy to Washington late last month to signal its displeasure over President Biden agreeing with a characterization of Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as a “killer.”

“I believe it is important for me to speak directly with my new colleagues in the Biden administration in Washington about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia,” said Mr. Sullivan, who was appointed to his post by President Trump and kept on by Mr. Biden.

Mr. Sullivan’s return is the latest in a diplomatic back-and-forth between the two ex-Cold War foes. Last week, the U.S. expelled 10 Russian diplomats and leveled another round of economic sanctions in response to the massive SolarWinds hack — which officials have pinned on Moscow — and the Kremlin’s attempts to influence the 2020 U.S. election. Russia responded by forcing 10 American diplomats to leave the country.

Russia’s treatment of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny has become another point of conflict between Russia and the West. Several of Mr. Navalny’s doctors were reportedly barred from visiting Mr. Navalny’s prison hospital in Russia on Tuesday, and the dissident — the target of a near fatal nerve agent attack last year widely blamed on the Kremlin — appears to be in poor health due to an ongoing hunger strike.

Russia annexed Crimea, formerly a part of Ukraine, in 2014 despite vehement protests by the U.S. and NATO. The U.S. does not formally recognize the annexation.

Now, with tens of thousands of Russian troops amassed just across the border from Ukraine, Moscow is kicking off a new round of naval and air drills that will block key parts of the Black Sea for at least several months. The White House said the exercises will block access to ports in the Sea of Azov, choking off a critical economic avenue for Ukraine.

State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the Russian military’s Black Sea exercises in a statement Monday evening as “yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine.

“This development is particularly troubling amid credible reports of Russian troop buildup in occupied Crimea and around Ukraine’s borders, now at levels not seen since Russia’s invasion in 2014, and other provocative actions by Russia-led forces” in the region, he added.

For its part, Russia says it is the U.S. and NATO who have been building up forces on its western border and argues its Black Sea exercises are a necessary part of the country’s self-defense plans. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet said in a statement Tuesday that its latest round of drills are meant to deter enemy attacks in the area.

The naval group “held an exercise to repel a notional enemy’s air attack weapons, using active radio-electronic interference and notionally employing air defense capabilities,” the fleet said.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters in Moscow the ambassadors’ departures accurately reflect deeper tensions in the relationship. 

“The relations now have hit bottom,” Mr. Peskov said. “There are certain consequences of the unfriendly measures taken against our country and the retaliatory measures taken by us.”

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