Exclusive: Russia Won't Risk 'Suicidal' NATO War in Black Sea—Ukraine Foreign Minister

Ukraine's foreign minister has urged NATO not to allow Russia to extend its influence in the Black Sea, amid tensions that Kremlin critics say are a symptom of Moscow's plan to establish de facto control of the wider region.

Dmytro Kuleba told Newsweek that discussions about the Black Sea were central to Kyiv's expanding cooperation with NATO, a bloc Ukraine has been pushing to join since its 2014 revolution ousted a pro-Russian government.

Recent weeks have seen tense confrontations between NATO warships and Russian forces in the Black Sea. First, Russian jets reportedly fired warning shots close to British destroyer HMS Defender sailing close to Crimea—the peninsula annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. British defense officials, however, denied that HMS Defender came under fire.

This week, Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen was shadowed by Russian jets in the Black Sea, also while sailing close to the peninsula. Dutch officials complained that the jets conducted "mock attacks" on the vessel.

Despite the confrontations, Kuleba told Newsweek in a statement that Kyiv does not expect a sudden outbreak of serious violence in the Black Sea.

"I do believe Russia is ready to escalate some local tensions in the Black Sea region, but I do not see them being suicidal," Kuleba said. "They may pinch and provoke here and there. But Russia will not risk a full-scale confrontation with NATO, clearly realizing they have no chances to succeed in it."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. to request comment on the recent tensions in the Black Sea.

Observers have long warned of the dangers of accidental escalation in the Black Sea, which is a vital conduit for Russian oil and gas trade, and Moscow's military power projection into the Mediterranean and around European coasts.

Confrontations between Russian and NATO forces are common in the area, at sea and in the air. Both sides also hold regular military drills in the Black Sea; this week marks the beginning of the multi-nation Sea Breeze naval exercises, which will run until July 10.

The Black Sea also serves as another front in the continuing Russia-Ukraine conflict. Moscow has been accused of trying to choke Ukrainian trade and freedom of navigation in the area—another means of undermining the anti-Kremlin government in Kyiv, which is fighting Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.

"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," Kuleba told Newsweek.

"Which means elevated threats for the security and stability of Ukraine and NATO allies there."

"What is also worrying is Moscow's attempts to disrupt trade routes and limit the freedom of navigation."

Russia's violent intervention in Ukraine in 2014 supercharged the country's westward drift. Kyiv now counts the U.S., European Union and NATO among its most important allies in its struggle against the Kremlin. Ukraine is also on track to join the alliance, and NATO members reiterated their support for the process at their June summit in Brussels.

Russia has long been staunchly opposed to Ukrainian NATO membership and has warned that such a step would further destabilize the regional situation.

Kuleba said the Black Sea featured heavily in his discussions with NATO members. "I am raising this topic in all of my meetings with both the NATO allies of the Black Sea region, Romania, Turkey and Bulgaria, and in the NATO headquarters in Brussels," he explained.

"Gradually, I see them hearing Ukraine when we ring alarm bells. Many things were done too little too late in 2014, and I hope now we don't repeat those mistakes, acting differently with the full understanding of Russia's intentions."

President Vladimir Putin this week blamed NATO for the situation in the Black Sea, adding that Moscow retained its military edge in the region. "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," Putin said of his NATO adversaries.

"Russia does have a strategically advantageous position in the temporarily occupied Crimea now," Kuleba acknowledged.

"Therefore, it is very important for us that the Black Sea does not repeat the fate of the Azov Sea region," he added, referring to the body of water between Crimea and Russia that has increasingly fallen under Moscow's control since it annexed the peninsula.

"We need to enhance cooperation between the Ukrainian navy and navies of the NATO allies in the Black Sea," Kuleba said.

"I am confident that nothing can interfere with the Sea Breeze training," the foreign minister added. "What Russia tries to do now is play a muscle game showing that no matter how much others train, it's only them who is ready to act in the region."

Dmytro Kuleba pictured at Portugal press conference
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, at a press conference in the Palácio das Necessidades on September 9, 2020, in Lisbon, Portugal. NATO allies are taking notice when Kyiv rings alarm bells, he told Newsweek. Horacio Villalobos Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images