Russia's Defense Minister Says U.S. Employing 'Provocative Actions' in Black Sea

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Tuesday asserted that the U.S. and NATO have employed "provocative actions" in the Black Sea due to the U.S. and NATO having regularly sent navy ships to the area, according to the Associated Press.

Shoigu's backlash against the U.S. and NATO came after U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price expressed concerns on Monday about Russia's plans to block foreign naval ships and U.S. vessels in the Black Sea, including near Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which is controlled by Russia, amid a heavy Russian troop buildup near Ukraine's border.

"This represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow's ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine," Price said.

On Tuesday, Russia said that it has the right to restrict foreign naval ships' movement near Crimea, AP reported. Price's statement added that the U.S. reaffirms its "unwavering support" for Ukraine's sovereignty and its "territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, arrives at the Kapustin Yar range to oversee the Caucasus-2020 military exercises on September 25, 2020. Shoigu accused the U.S. on Tuesday of employing "provocative actions" in the Black Sea area. Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images

Russia on Tuesday rejected international criticism amid Western worries about a Russian troops buildup near Ukraine.

Ukraine last week protested the Russian move to close broad areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign navy ships and state vessels until November.

Price noted that the move "is particularly troubling amid credible reports of Russian troop buildup in occupied Crimea and around Ukraine's borders."

The European Union also voiced concern about the troop buildup and the navigation restrictions.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov charged that the restrictions on foreign naval ships were in line with international agreements, arguing that it's common practice to limit areas where military drills are held. He emphasized in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that the restrictions wouldn't interfere with commercial shipping.

In a separate move, Russia on Tuesday also announced restrictions on flights near Crimea for five days starting Tuesday.

The Russian military is holding massive Black Sea maneuvers this week, involving more than 20 warships and dozens of aircraft.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov argued that such airspace closures are common international practice.

Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 after the country's former Russia-friendly president was driven from power by protests. Moscow then threw its weight behind separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the conflict there has killed more than 14,000 people in seven years.

Tensions have risen in recent weeks with increasing violations of a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and a massive Russian troop buildup along the Ukrainian border. Moscow has rejected Ukraine and Western concerns, arguing that it's free to deploy its forces and charging that they don't threaten anyone.

But at the same time, Moscow sternly warned Ukrainian authorities against trying to use force to retake control of the rebel east, noting recent statements by Ukrainian military officers who held the door open for an offensive. The Kremlin said that Russia could be forced to intervene to protect civilians in the region.

Shoigu on Tuesday accused Ukraine of trying to destabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine.

The U.S. flew strategic bombers over Ukraine, vexing Moscow. However, the U.S. reversed a planned deployment of two destroyers in the Black Sea earlier this month amid the heightening tensions.

The Russian military has conducted a series of drills in southwestern Russia, in Crimea and other areas. On Tuesday, a pair of Tu-160 nuclear-capable strategic bombers flew over the Baltic Sea for eight hours, and the Northern Fleet conducted massive maneuvers in the Arctic, the Defense Ministry said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba insisted Tuesday that Kyiv wasn't planning any offensive in the east.

"No, Ukraine is not planning any offensive, military escalation or provocations," he said at a news conference, adding that "we are making every effort for a diplomatic and peaceful resolution of the conflict."

Kuleba charged that the Russian buildup across the border is continuing and is "expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops" in about a week and urged the West to beef up sanctions against Moscow by targeting entire sectors of the Russian economy.

On Monday, the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told reporters that there are "more than 150,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea," and doubled down on the figure later before his services had to correct it in the transcript, saying the real figure was over 100,000.

Recent satellite images showed hundreds of Russian military vehicles stationed at multiple bases, firing ranges and field camps along the border with Ukraine and dozens of warplanes parked at air bases in southwestern Russia and Crimea.