Russia Practices Firing Missiles into Black Sea as U.S., Allies Enter It for Training

The Russian military has practiced firing missiles into the Black Sea as vessels of the U.S. Navy and allied and partnered forces entered the strategic waters to conduct joint drills.

Personnel of Russia's Black Sea Fleet deployed Bal and Bastion coastal defense systems to the Crimean Peninsula as part of "an exercise to destroy a simulated enemy's surface ship in the Black Sea," the Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday. Once in position, crews prepared the launchers to fire, detected the mock target, identified it and locked onto it.

"In the course of the exercise, the servicemen practiced the algorithm of measures to deliver missile strikes against a simulated enemy's warship by electronic launches," the ministry added.

The training came shortly after the Russian Ministry of Defense announced it was tracking the movements of warships of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands as they joined the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Laboon and other vessels positioned in the Black Sea for Exercise Sea Breeze 2021. This year's installation of the annual training, led by the U.S. and Ukraine, was set to feature its largest multinational gathering yet.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Bobby Dixon, who leads public affairs for Exercise Sea Breeze, told Newsweek that the combined operation was a display of mutual commitment and capability of the NATO Western military alliance and its partners toward enforcing their vision for the Black Sea and surrounding areas.

"This is the 21st iteration of Exercise Sea Breeze which is held annually in Ukraine and throughout the Black Sea region," Dixon said. "The continuation of this exercise is a visible demonstration of our enduring commitment to work closely with our NATO Allied and partner nations to enhance maritime security in the Black Sea. The exercise is cohosted by U.S. and Ukrainian navies bringing together over 30 countries to operate within Ukraine and international waters and airspace which aligns with internationally accepted norms and behaviors."

He said the U.S. and fellow participants were following the rules when it came to operating in the Black Sea, and expected other nations not a part of the current exercises to do the same.

"When operating in the same body of water with any maritime traffic, the U.S. Navy will conduct operations in accordance with international law and customs," Dixon said. "In addition, should any vessels or aircraft not participating in SEA BREEZE enter the exercise operating area, we would expect those units to conduct themselves in a safe and professional manner."

Russia, Bal, system, launches, into, Black, Sea
A Bal coastal defense system of the Russian Black Sea Fleet launches an anti-ship cruise missile again a mock enemy surface ship in drills conducted February 4 at the Opuk inter-service training ground in Crimea. Russian Ministry of Defense

On Monday the 6th Fleet formally announced its participation in the Exercise Sea Breeze, set to take place from June 28 through July 10. The training "will focus on multiple warfare areas including amphibious warfare, land maneuver warfare, diving operations, maritime interdiction operations, air defense, special operations integration, anti-submarine warfare, and search and rescue operations," according to a statement.

The exercise is to include some "32 countries from six continents providing 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operations and dive teams scheduled to participate," the statement said.

Ukrainian naval forces have already begun live-fire combat training amid heightened geopolitical frictions surrounding the exercise.

The Black Sea region has become a hotbed of tensions since the political unrest that ousted Ukraine's government in 2014 was followed by the outbreak of an eastern separatist insurgency and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia in an internationally disputed referendum. The subsequent and current administrations in Kyiv, as well as its Western partners, have accused Moscow of violating the territorial integrity of its fellow former Soviet bloc neighbor.

In a commentary published Tuesday by German newspaper Die Ziet, Russian President Vladimir Putin alleged it was the U.S. and its allies that were behind Ukraine's lingering instability.

"The Ukrainian tragedy of 2014 is an example of the consequences that this aggressive policy has led to," Putin wrote. "Europe actively supported the unconstitutional armed coup in Ukraine. This was where it all started. Why was it necessary to do this? Then incumbent president [Viktor] Yanukovych had already accepted all the demands of the opposition. Why did the USA organize the coup and the European countries weak-heartedly support it, provoking a split within Ukraine and the withdrawal of Crimea?"

NATO-Russia relations have yet to recover from the events in Ukraine and Crimea, and both sides continue to maneuver through the region by land, air and sea.

On the ground, the conflict continues in Ukraine, as the country's armed forces and allied militias battle rebels of the self-declared people's republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which, like Crimea, have largely Russian-speaking populations.

The U.S. has offered assistance to Ukraine, most recently with a $150 million bundle announced last week.

The White House recently dismissed as "nonsense" on Friday a Politico report citing four anonymous sources alleging Washington had frozen a recent $100 million package coinciding with President Joe Biden's summit last Wednesday with Putin in the Swiss capital of Geneva.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement on Friday that the U.S. had "prepared contingency funds in the event of a further Russian incursion into Ukraine."

She said the president told his Russian counterpart "directly" that "we will stand unwavering in support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova criticized the affair during an interview Tuesday with the Rossiya-1 outlet as a display of U.S. deception toward Ukraine and its people.

"This is a classic game of the U.S. with Ukraine," Zakharova said. "This is maneuvering and flirting. This is a constant deceit of Ukrainian citizens throughout many years."

Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov and Moscow's permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe Alexander Lukashevich alleged earlier this month that Exercise Sea Breeze was a cover for the U.S. to quietly provide Ukraine with arms, ammunition and materiel to be used on the eastern front.

The claim was denied in a statement sent to Newsweek days later by U.S. 6th Fleet spokesperson Navy Commander Kyle Raines.

All of the equipment that the U.S. is bringing in support of the SEA BREEZE exercise is leaving with us when the exercise is over," Raines said at the time. "Every year we come in with various pieces of equipment but we take them with us when we leave. There is zero truth to claims that U.S. forces will leave any equipment behind."

A Ukrainian diplomat and military spokesperson also denied the report in remarks delivered to U.S. News World & Report.

In the leadup to the first summit between Biden and Putin since the former took office earlier in January, the U.S. leader promised to meet with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, who has called for greater U.S. assistance.

Zelansky aspires for his country to become a member of NATO, which would bring Ukraine under the umbrella of the 30-state collective defense pact.

The alliance potentially opens to the door for Ukraine to enter into a preliminary NATO Membership Action Plan, but Biden said last week that Kyiv still has "more to do" in routing corruption and promoting democratic reforms. In the meantime, he vowed his administration would "put Ukraine in a position to be able to maintain their physical security."

Exercise, Sea, Breeze, 2021, participating, countries
A graphic published by the U.S. Navy on June 21 shows the record number of participants in this year's installation of Exercise Sea Breeze. The 32 countries involved include Albania, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, France, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Morocco, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Senegal, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States. U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. Sixth Fleet