Two US destroyers, the USS Ross and USS Carney, recently entered the Black Sea. CNN quoted a US official who claimed that the goal was to "desensitize Russia" to the American military presence. The ships turned up just as the Russian Navy launched a series of military exercises. A British destroyer had only just left the Black Sea when the American ships arrived. The Royal Navy vessel had also been on a mission to challenge Russia.
Not since NATO's Sea Breeze naval exercises in July 2017 have two American combat ships been simultaneously deployed in the Black Sea.. That scenario included an amphibious operation to practice landing on Russian shores. Last year the US Navy was part of three large-scale exercises in the Black Sea: Spring Storm, Sea Shield, and Sea Breeze.
Ukraine features prominently in US plans. Last summer, Americans began to build a naval facility in Ochakov, Ukraine that will support their operations in the region. There can be no doubt that this is just the beginning and the facility will expand. Ukraine takes part in NATO training events on par with the bloc’s full-fledged members. Last June, Ukraine’s parliament annulled the country’s non-aligned status.
The voices calling for Ukraine to join NATO sounded louder than usual at the recent Munich conference. US Senator Lindsey Graham argued that there was nothing to lose, since the West’s relations with Russia seem to be beyond salvageable. He thinks it’s time Ukraine was given a green light to join the bloc. Estonian Defense Minister Jüri Luik said Ukraine and Georgia should be patient and ready to join.
Last October the NATO Parliamentary Assembly adopted a Resolution on Stability and Security in the Black Sea Region, calling for Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine and Georgia. Russia's southern flank appears to be dangerously unsettled. Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey are in NATO. Georgia and Ukraine host NATO forces on their soil and aspire to membership – an ambition that has strong support.
Romania is hosting a NATO brigade – an infantry unit – as well as 150 US Marines. British, Canadian, and Polish aircraft have recently begun operating from a Romanian air base. That country is home to a missile-defense site capable of firing intermediate-range surface-to-surface cruise missiles in violation of the INF Treaty.
The American military is to deploy a 2,500 strong force in Novo Selo, Bulgaria. That facility can host up to 5,000 NATO troops with heavy tanks, such as US Abrams. Bulgaria is being transformed into a springboard for offensive NATO operations. US and Bulgarian aircraft have been patrolling the Black Sea since 2016 – the year NATO adopted its Tailored Forward Presence (TFP) initiative, pledging to increase its footprint in the region. As one can see, the mission has so far been successful, and without attracting much public attention to the ongoing build-up.
NATO and Russia are trading accusations over who is to blame for the close calls that have become increasingly frequent. No one seems to remember the INCSEA agreement concluded in 1972 between the US and Russia (the USSR) to prevent incidents ”on and over the high seas.”
True, the US destroyers are not violating the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates the activities of non-Black Sea states in the Bosporus Straits. Neither would a Russian naval task force that consisted of ships with long-range cruise-missile capability patrol international waters near US shores. One can only imagine the brouhaha furor that would ensue were such a mission to take place. There was a reaction even when the Victor Leonov, an unarmed Russian intelligence-gathering ship, was sighted near the US East coast last year. Would the US remain silent if Russian cruise-missile-capable surface ships and submarines started making frequent port calls to Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela? And if Russian intelligence aircraft regularly flew near US airspace the way American aircraft do while carrying out intelligence missions near Russian borders? Would the US perceive such activities as friendly and posing no threat?
Russia is not eager to whip up tensions. It’s been pretty forbearing. But if a red line is crossed, there are things it can do without violating any rules in order to bring others to their senses. The lesson the US Navy received in 2014 springs to mind, although that event has now largely been forgotten.
In 2014, the USS Donald Cook entered the Black Sea. A Russian Su-24 flew over the ship a number of times. The Cook's Aegis radar system was blinded by the Khibiny radar jamming device and the ship’s entire communications system rendered useless. It was unexpected and very impressive. Some crew members were demoralized and there were even reports of resignations.
There has been a lot in the news about Russia strengthening its military presence in Crimea. It would be strange if this were not the case, seeing how NATO has been increasing its military capability. Now the US appears to be going to any length to turn the Black Sea, which is located at such a great distance from the continental United States, into a real hornet’s nest, as if it were not already involved in enough conflicts in remote regions. This policy of testing Russia’s resolve could backfire like it did in 2014.