U.S. Navy Defends 'Essential' Black Sea Drills as Russia Threatens Violent Response

A U.S. Navy commander defended the ongoing multi-nation Sea Breeze 2021 drills being held in the Black Sea this week as Russian officials protest against what Moscow considers a military provocation.

Tensions in the Black Sea have been high in recent weeks, which saw confrontations between Russian forces and British and Dutch ships in the strategically important region.

The encounters came shortly before the annual Sea Breeze drills kicked off. This year's installment is led by the U.S. and Ukraine, involving forces from more than 30 nations.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Russia's International Affairs on Tuesday that Western "provocateurs" risk an escalation, referring specifically to the passage of the British ship close to Crimean waters last month.

"They would be better off leaving their provocations aside next time and staying away from that area because they will get clocked in the nose," Ryabkov said.

Both British and Dutch officials maintain that their ships were sailing in international waters when confronted by Russian forces.

Neither side is backing down over the Black Sea, which is a vital conduit for Russian trade and military power projection. The Sea is also another front in the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Russia's critics have accused Moscow of seeking to expand its influence in the Sea to choke Ukrainian ports, isolate Kyiv, and cement its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Commander Daniel Marzluff, the U.S. Sixth Fleet's Black Sea Region Engagement Lead, told Newsweek Tuesday that the Sea Breeze drills as "essential" in deterring Russian aggression and asserting U.S. and NATO backing for Ukraine, which remains at war with Moscow-backed separatists in the east of the country.

"This is clearly the most effective way to bring a unified front to this kind of rogue action," Marzluff told Newsweek from the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, referring to the ongoing exercises.

U.S. regional allies are America's "greatest strategic advantage" in its contest with Russia, Marzluff said: "Here in the Black Sea, we have three NATO allies that are poised and ready to respond to any type of Russian aggression."

Russia has been holding its own military exercises while Sea Breeze is ongoing. On Tuesday, Russia's defense ministry said long-range aviation drills were conducted in the Saratov, Amur, Irkutsk, and Ryazan regions, involving units including strategic missile carriers and an air-to-air refueling tanker aircraft.

Russia also recently conducted a readiness test of air defense systems in Crimea, which Moscow has been fortifying since its 2014 annexation from Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to frame Western operations in the Black Sea as a violation of Moscow's traditional sphere of influence. Putin claimed the incidents involving the British and Dutch ships were part of a U.S.-British plan to open new military bases in or close to Ukraine.

"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 last week.

American and NATO officials have rebuffed Putin's allegations. All have also expressed continued support for Ukraine in its standoff with Moscow and condemned Russian threats of escalation in the Black Sea and its blockade of Ukrainian ports.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry told Newsweek: "The Dutch forces have every right to operate in de Black Sea. The Dutch frigate was in international waters, operating in accordance with the international law of the sea, as codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

"We will continue to operate in accordance with international law and in line with ours and other NATO allies' previous behavior. The safety of navigation and of flight when operating at sea is always of paramount importance...This was not in any way meant to be provocative."

A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. is "deeply concerned by Russia's stated intent to block foreign naval ships and state vessels from certain parts of the Black Sea, including near occupied Crimea."

They said: "We call on Russia to cease its harassment of vessels in the region and to respect the navigational rights and freedoms of all States as provided under international law.

"We stand with our allies in opposing Russia aggression in Ukraine, and we reaffirm our support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters. Crimea is Ukraine."

Russia's stance in the Black Sea might yet backfire. Already, Ukraine and Georgia—both victims of recent Russian military incursions—are pushing for full NATO membership.

Moscow's role as a provocateur is "unquestionably clear," Marzluff said, adding: "I think that people see Russia's actions for what they are, and it's not hard to do that...Russia is acting unilaterally as an aggressive nation."

Russian actions have the "greatest potential for any kind of unnecessary escalation" in the Black Sea, Marzluff told Newsweek, describing Russian behavior as "blatant aggressive action."

"It comes, I think, from a place of opportunistic aggression," Marzluff said. "I think there's just the sense that, 'We're going to try this next thing and let's see what sticks. And if not, we'll try something else.'

"There's this continual pushing up the boundaries of what makes sense, in my opinion, on the part of the Russian Federation, just to try to see what can be potentially normalized, or accepted, or even de facto ceded to the Russian Federation."

Newsweek has asked the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. for comment.

US soldier at Sea Breeze drills Ukraine
A U.S. Army serviceman takes part in the Sea Breeze drills at a shooting range in the Kherson region of Ukraine on July 2, 2021. OLEKSANDR GIMANOV/AFP via Getty Images