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This past week saw NATO and Russian forces engaged in a showdown in the Black Sea that threatened to escalate dangerously. Military confrontations in the area have raised concerns that a sudden upsurge in the violence could potentially pull in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union.
Russians Confronting British and Dutch Ships
Over the past several weeks, Russian military forces have been confronting ships from Britain and the Netherlands that were sailing near the Crimean's territorial waters. Moscow annexed the land mass back in 2014. NATO allies did not recognize the action annexing the Crimea even as they roundly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine that same year. The Kremlin stated that it had fired warning shots against British destroyer HMS Defender, which the British defense officials denied. Reports claimed that Russian fighter jets also engaged in simulated assaults versus the Dutch frigate Evertsen.
Black Sea a Flashpoint for Tensions with Russia
This is not the first time that the Black Sea has been a tension point between the West and Russia. The crisis with the Ukraine several years ago only made it more of an issue. Senior non-resident fellow Mark Simakovsky of the Atlantic Council warned that:
The Black Sea is a trigger that “creates the potential for an explosion in the U.S.-Russian tension.” Both sides will be “very worried and concerned about” these triggers.
One NATO official warned that the nations of the alliance will not alter their naval operations regardless of the protests from Russia, with:
“NATO ships routinely operate in the Black Sea, consistent with international law, usually patrolling the waters for around two-thirds of the year. NATO supports the Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters. We do not and will not recognize Russia's illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea and denounce its temporary occupation.”
Dutch Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant Commander Alex Kranenburg added that Dutch forces will maintain these operations until they head to Asia with a British carrier task group, with:
HNLMS Evertsen was “operating in full accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Therefore, there is no reason for Evertsen to change its modus operandi. The presence of HNLMS Evertsen in the Black Sea fits within our normal operational pattern. It is not unusual for NATO warships to operate in the Black Sea. We are there to enhance maritime situational awareness, to exercise with NATO and non-NATO partners and to visit several ports from partner nations. This fits within the assurance of our partners in the area. The Netherlands respects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.”
British Defense Minister Ben Wallace echoed these sentiments, adding that the course of the HMS Defender was completely legal:
“The United Kingdom does not recognize any Russian claim to these waters, nor do we recognize the assertion from the Russian Ministry of Defense that HMS Defender was in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea… Defender maintained a safe course throughout her innocent passage.”
Russian Historical Interaction With NATO Vessels Has Been Hostile
In the past, the forces from Russia have engaged in a number of near flybys of a few different NATO vessels including American naval ships. The Russian jets commonly intercept any NATO aircraft flying over the Black Sea. These two sides commonly engage in military drills in the region. This week United States- and Ukraine-headed Sea Breeze naval drills started in the Black Sea. The U.S. Navy stated these involved 32 countries with 32 ships, 5,000 soldiers, and 40 aircraft.
Lieutenant Commander Matthew Comer, spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet, affirmed that:
“The approximately 30 nations participating in Sea Breeze demonstrate an international commitment to stability of the Black Sea. Misinformation threatens that stability of this vital international waterway. Our operations during the annual execution of Sea Breeze are designed to build cohesion among allies and partners… U.S. Sixth Fleet along with allies and partners will continue to conduct routine operations in international waters and airspace, ensuring freedom of navigation and uninhibited maritime trade across the global commons.”
Yet the Russians view all such Black Sea operations as threats to its controlling the Crimea. They argue that these engagements are plots to strengthen the government of Ukraine while undermining Moscow's claims to the territory. The NATO Black Sea patrols only encourage the historic Russian fear of being encircled and subjugated by Western opponents.
As recently as 2019, the Russians seized control of three Ukrainian ships with 24 sailors off of the Crimea. This raised worries of a significant escalation in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Since that time, Russia has kept up its persistent endeavors to gain control over the Black Sea and the coastline of Ukraine. This graphic shows Russian forces stationed in the Crimea:
Black Sea Operations Maintain Pressure on Moscow
Russia has staunchly refused to give up the annexed territory, and Western countries do not have a means of forcing them to. Maintaining operations within the Black Sea is a method for the United States and allied countries to raise the issue while pressuring the Kremlin without running elevated risks of a conflict within the Ukraine proper. The West is unwilling to allow the Russians to assert control of the Black Sea without a challenge.
Such Black Sea operations add pressure to other Russian geopolitical aspirations. The Black Sea is a centerpiece to Moscow's oil and gas trade. It is also the primary waterway through which it is able to project military might into the Mediterranean Sea as well as the coastlines of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
Meanwhile Russia's President Vladimir Putin has shifted the blame of the standoff over to NATO countries. He argued that the United States and United Kingdom are engaging in a “complex provocation” designed to elicit a response from Russia. Putin insisted that the maneuvers are intended to establish military bases in the Ukraine or nearby countries, with:
“They know they cannot win this conflict: we would be fighting for our own territory; we didn't travel thousands of miles to get to their borders, they did.”
Meanwhile Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova added that:
“Washington and its allies are consistent in turning the Black Sea water zone from an area of cooperation that was being built into a forceful confrontation zone. It is done deliberately in order for another region in the world under the U.S. leadership to become unstable and threatening.”
Both sides look to realize gains from the increasingly dangerous situation. The United States and NATO countries are able to make a show of strength for a free Black Sea and independent Ukraine. Putin is able to safeguard Russian zones of influence and respond to what he calls Western encroachment. The Atlantic Council's Mark Simakovsky warned that this firing around NATO ships is not a normal reaction and will not be welcomed by the West. Yet he added that “both sides are getting what they want, potentially from this.”
The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba shared with Newsweek that he does not anticipate Russia will intentionally start a “suicidal” confrontation against the NATO countries over the Black Sea. Yet despite this, Kyiv is counting on its Western friends to continue pushing back against the Russian strategy to “pinch and provoke.” Kuleba warned that:
“In our conversations with NATO we are very frank on this: if things continue as they are, there is a risk that Russia may significantly increase its control over the Black Sea and further expand its influence in the region. Which means elevated threats for the security and stability of Ukraine and NATO allies there.”
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