U.S. Denies Russia Claims That Its Military Drills Are Cover to Send Arms to Ukraine

The U.S. military has rejected Russian claims that joint Black Sea drills to be launched later this month by the U.S., Ukraine and other partnered countries would serve as a cover for a secret weapons transfer to Ukraine as it continues to struggle with a years-long conflict on its eastern border with Russia.

Days after the U.S. and Ukrainian armed forces announced this year's installment of the annual Exercise Sea Breeze to be held from June 28 through July 10, the Russian Defense Ministry convened a briefing last Wednesday led by spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov.

The Russian official stated that the maneuvers were expected to comprise some 4,000 military personnel, 40 warships, boats and auxiliary vessels, 30 units of aviation equipment and more than 100 units of cars and armored vehicles. Among the 27 countries said to be participating were Ukraine and NATO Western military alliance members the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Latvia.

The NATO presence alone in the strategic waters, lands and skies in and around the Black Sea region presented concerns, but Konashenkov saw another hidden threat.

"And even more, under the guise of the exercise, it is planned to deliver modern weapons, ammunition and material property for the Ukrainian troops," Konashenkov told reporters. "In the future, as in previous years, all this will be directed to the Ukrainian troops and nationalist formations stationed near the areas not controlled by Kyiv in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions."

The Russian Defense Ministry, Konashenkov asserted, "will closely monitor the course of preparation and conduct of the Ukrainian-American exercise Sea Breeze with the involvement of NATO countries and, if necessary, respond adequately to the evolving situation in the interests of ensuring the military security of the Russian Federation."

The accusations were echoed the following day by Russia's permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe Alexander Lukashevich.

"According to available information, under the cover of the exercises, it is planned to deliver to Ukraine modern weapons, ammunition and material property," Lukashevich said. "In the future, as in previous years, weapons will be sent to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the paramilitary units of Ukrainian nationalists stationed near the contact line in Donbass"—a term referring to the largely Russian-speaking Donets Basin incorporating Donetsk and Luhansk.

He emphasized that "the militarization of Ukraine and the pumping of weapons into it will not contribute to the establishment of peace in Donbass, but, on the contrary, will spur the 'hotheads' in Kyiv to new rounds of military escalation in the east of the country."

But as the U.S. prepared to stage the training amid continued bloodshed in eastern Ukraine and heightened tensions in the leadup to U.S. President Joe Biden's debut summit next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the U.S. Navy denied Moscow's claims regarding a plot to deliver weapons to Ukrainian forces.

"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," U.S. Navy Commander Kyle Raines, spokesperson for the 6th Fleet, told Newsweek. "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."

US, security, assistance, to, Ukraine
Airmen from the 436th Aerial Port Squadron load cargo marked "explosives" onto an aircraft in support of a security assistance mission between the U.S. and Ukraine at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, May 24. The U.S. and Ukraine first initiated this partnership in 1993, two years after the country became independent in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and such missions were described by the U.S. Air Force this demonstrating "the U.S.’s commitment to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity." Airman 1st Class Cydney Lee/436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs/U.S. Air Force

Raines described Exercise Sea Breeze as a "routine, annual training exercise, co-hosted by the Ukrainian and U.S. navies" that "aims to improve interoperability while promoting regional security and peace."

He argued that the U.S. and its allies had every right to operate in the Black Sea region.

"The Black Sea is an international body of water and the region above it has international airspace," Raines said. "The U.S. Navy operates in international waters around the globe and shares the maritime environment with many countries. The U.S. Navy will continue to operate in international waters, consistent with international law, and with due regard for safety."

Washington has provided Kyiv with weapons and training throughout the conflict that erupted in March 2015 when pro-Moscow separatists declared breakaway governments in Donetsk and Luhansk amid political unrest in the capital. Ukrainian officials have accused Russia, which reclaimed the Crimean Peninsula around this same time, of offering direct assistance to the eastern Ukrainian insurgents, a charge Russia denies.

Biden too has denounced Moscow's alleged role in the conflict, including an op-ed published Saturday in The Washington Post in which the president made reference to Russia's "aggression in Ukraine," where U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said tens of thousands of Russian troops have amassed near the border in recent months.

Ukraine was also at the center of a political scandal involving Biden and his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, whose first impeachment in December 2019 came as a result of phone call months earlier in which he was accused of attempting to pressure Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating the prior dealings of Biden's son during his time on the board of a Ukrainian gas company in exchange for U.S. military assistance. Biden, who would go on to win the election the following year, has always denied wrongdoing on his part or that of his family.

While Zelensky has cheered on Biden's frequent criticism of Putin, the Ukrainian leader has also told Axios on Sunday he was "surprised" and "disappointed" with the U.S. president's decision to waive sanctions on the Russia-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would offer allow Russia to circumvent and potentially isolate Ukraine in the transfer of natural gas to Europe. The move may "dampen the confidence" Ukrainians have in U.S. support, Zelensky argued.

Also concerning, he said, was the White House's silence so far on the upcoming U.S.-Russia summit. Zelensky beseeched Biden during the interview to first consult or even meet with him before sitting down for talks with Putin.

The following day, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that Biden had spoken with Zelensky by phone on Monday and would invite him to the White House sometime this summer.

Ukraine, soldiers, near, frontline, border, Russia
A Ukrainian serviceman with a tattoo of Ukraine's coat of arms stands at his position on the frontline with pro-Russia separatists, not far from Donetsk, on April 22. Russia concluded a series of drills that brought an unprecedented number of troops to the border at a time of conflict, but U.S. and Ukrainian officials alleged tens of thousands of Russian personnel remain in the region, raising concerns for Ukrainian soldiers and partnered right-wing militias deployed to the flashpoint. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images

A readout released by Zelensky's office confirmed the communication and stated that he had accepted Biden's offer to visit Washington in July. The two were also said to have discussed Nord Stream 2, continued U.S. security assurances and the ongoing presence of Russian troops following a military exercise that was supposed to have concluded in April.

"Volodymyr Zelensky told Joe Biden about the security situation in Donbass and along the Ukrainian borders," the Ukrainian readout said. "He emphasized that there was still a high concentration of Russian troops and heavy weapons in the temporarily occupied territories and near the Ukrainian border."

"The so-called withdrawal of Russian troops is only an imitation," Zelensky was quoted as saying.

In a readout later released by the White House, Biden was said to have "affirmed the United States' unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of ongoing Russian aggression in Donbas and Crimea" among other expressions of support for Ukraine.

Putin, for his part, also discussed the conflict in neighboring Ukraine during a telephone conversation Monday with European Council President Charles Michel, to whom the Russian leader presented his country's position.

"The President of Russia said that the Kiev authorities must strictly implement all previously reached agreements, primarily on establishing a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk and legalising the special status of Donbass," according to a Kremlin readout which stated that both sides expressed support for the 2015 Minsk Protocol through which all parties to the conflict have tried—and so far failed—to bring an end to the fighting.

In comments given by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov to the Lenta news outlet last Wednesday and later sent to Newsweek by Russia's embassy in Washington, the Russian diplomat said it was important that Putin and Biden be able "to find mutual understanding on some key topics," but specifically criticized what he called a "contradictory" U.S. position on the conflict in Ukraine.

Ryabkov argued that Biden administration officials were "heavily involved in absolutely absurd, stupid accusations of Russia in relation to what is happening in Donbass" and "all sorts of sins and deviations" from the Minsk Protocol, which he argued did not entail any commitments from Russia.

"This is an irresponsible course," Ryabkov said. "We condemn this line and hope that more understanding of reality and more responsibility will be shown here."

This story has been updated to include a readout released by the White House of President Joe Biden's call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.