The Black Sea is emerging as a prime flashpoint in the West’s standoff with Vladimir Putin‘s Russia. President Biden said he seeks stable, predictable relations with the Kremlin, but the U.S. and its allies aren’t backing off on a major naval military exercise in the contested sea this week that has the Russian leader fuming.
Only days after Russia said it fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the wake of a British destroyer it claimed was encroaching on its territorial waters, the USS Ross steamed into the Black Sea to join more than 30 other countries this week for the kickoff of the massive Sea Breeze maritime exercise.
Sea Breeze, scheduled to run through July 10, will be the largest since its inception in 1997. More than 30 ships and 40 aircraft from NATO members and Black Sea countries will take part. Ukraine, which is locked in its own intense battle of wills with Russia, and the U.S. are hosting the maneuvers.
Wide-ranging operations include amphibious warfare, maritime interdiction and air defense.
Exercises “will help enhance interoperability and capabilities among participating nations,” said Kristina Kvien, charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. “We are committed to maintaining the safety and security of the Black Sea.”
Looming over the naval maneuvers is the increasingly frigid relationship between Russia and the West, which now includes some former client states of the Soviet Union. The Russian Embassy in Washington issued a statement calling for this year’s exercises to be canceled. It warned that the operations will raise tensions in the region and encourage “militaristic sentiments” in Ukraine.
“The scale and clearly aggressive nature of the Sea Breeze exercises in no way correspond to the real tasks of security in the Black Sea region,” said the statement, posted on Twitter. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said in early June that the drills could provide cover for the supply of new offensive weapons and ammunition to Ukraine.
Sending a message
Aykan Erdemir, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said NATO is sending a message of deterrence and the Kremlin is replying.
“On the Kremlin side, it’s about intimidating not only Ukraine but also NATO member states and NATO partners that can come to Ukraine‘s aid,” said Mr. Erdemir, who heads the foundation’s Turkey program. “Putin is very much in the offense mode. [Sea Breeze] provides him with a unique opportunity to make a point.”
Mr. Putin aired fresh grievances about the allied naval exercises during his annual marathon call-in press conference Wednesday. He said the aggressor is the West, which is intruding on waters claimed by Russia. Ukraine, he said, is essentially a puppet of the U.S. and top European Union powers.
“We are fighting for ourselves and our future on our own territory,” he said. “It’s not us who traveled thousands of kilometers to come to them; it’s them who have come to our borders and violated our territorial waters.”
Navy officials say they routinely operate in the Black Sea consistent with international law and the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates the transit of naval warships through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.
“It is in the world’s best interest to maintain a stable, prosperous Black Sea region and deter aggressive actors who seek destabilization for their own gain,” Navy officials said.
Analysts say planning for the Sea Breeze exercise took on unusual prominence this year when Russia began shuttling thousands of soldiers, along with tanks and howitzers, to the border with Ukraine. Moscow has strongly backed Ukrainian separatist forces in a standoff with the Western-backed government in Kyiv. Clashes have killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
Russia‘s massive buildup “got a lot of attention from the Western world. We started sending ships more frequently to the Black Sea,” said Brent Sadler, a senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology at The Heritage Foundation. “NATO and the U.S. have been worried about what Russia has been doing in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean for many years.”
Less than a week before the naval exercises commenced, Russia said it had fired warning shots to drive the British destroyer HMS Defender away from waters near Sevastopol, the location of Russia‘s main naval base in Crimea. Moscow also said a Russian air force Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft dropped four high-explosive fragmentation bombs near the British ship.
“The destroyer was warned in advance that weapons would be fired in case of a violation of the Russian state border. It disregarded the warning,” the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to the Interfax news agency. Russian officials said the HMS Defender left Russian waters after the engagement.
The British government disputed Moscow’s account. It said the Defender’s crew heard no warning shots or bombs during the incident. Like the U.S. and most other countries, the United Kingdom doesn’t recognize Russia‘s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The destroyer was conducting a freedom of navigation operation through a well-traveled international transit corridor in the Black Sea, British officials said.
In his call-in show, Mr. Putin said the Russian military detected an American military aircraft shepherding the Defender on its transit.
“It was clearly a provocation, a complex one involving not only the British but also the Americans,” he said. The mission, he added, was in sharp contradiction of Mr. Biden‘s accommodating tone at the Geneva summit in mid-June.
Expanding Russian influence
While Moscow complains about the Sea Breeze exercises, critics say, the Russian navy and air force are conducting maneuvers to expand their influence in the Mediterranean.
“The pilots of the aircraft received practical skills to perform tasks in new geographical areas. Tasks were performed to destroy a mock enemy. The tasks are completed with high quality,” said Russian Air Force Lt. Gen. Sergei Kobylash, according to the Defense Ministry.
“Aviation equipment has once again confirmed its high reliability. The flight crew has gained invaluable experience,” Gen. Kobylash said.
NATO has been gradually building up its assets and presence in the Black Sea since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Mr. Sadler said Sea Breeze 2021 and similar exercises are meant to remind Moscow that the U.S. has what it lacks: regional partners.
“There’s definitely an implied message: We have a network of allies. It’s not just you and Ukraine,” he said. “There are a lot of people you’re going to be alienating. You’re taking on the world if you keep doing the things you’re doing.”
Some think the Russian confrontation with the Defender was a bungled effort by Mr. Putin and his generals to send a message to the West and to divide the U.S. from its European allies.
“The decision to take on HMS Defender and fire live warning shots was apparently taken ahead of time, at the highest level in Moscow …,” Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in the Eurasia Daily Monitor, published by the Jamestown Foundation. “Moscow strived to make the encounter bloodless while still sufficiently scaring the West away from supporting Ukraine — the goal was clearly not to start an all-European war.”
Mr. Erdemir said Mr. Putin‘s ultimate goal is to maintain some level of coercive control in countries with Russian-speaking populations, such as Georgia and Ukraine, and to benefit from the region’s “frozen conflicts.”
“It allows the Kremlin to use that presence as leverage over those former satellite states now pivoting toward the trans-Atlantic alliance,” Mr. Erdemir said. “Putin would like to turn [Ukraine] into a fait accompli whereby NATO and its partners around the world would come to accept the state of affairs that he favors.”