Russia's Black Sea Fleet Deploys as Fears of an Invasion Mount
On Wednesday, Russia's defense ministry reported that more than 20 ships of the Black Sea Fleet have been deployed for an exercise in the Black Sea.
The fleet departed the bases of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk and headed for "designated areas," the ministry said. The assets deployed include frigates, patrol ships, small missile ships and missile boats, landing ships, small anti-submarine ships and minesweepers.
"On the way to the designated areas, the crews of the ships will conduct a series of exercises and trainings on organizing communications, safe maneuvering in areas with intensive navigation, and organizing air defense at sea," the ministry said.
Six more tank landing craft from the Baltic Fleet and Northern Fleet are under way for the Mediterranean, and they are widely expected to join up with the forces of the Black Sea Fleet.
The deployment comes as Russia is building up a powerful invasion force along the northern and eastern borders of Ukraine. More than 100,000 Russian troops have deployed to Belarus, southern Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea, along with mechanized units and more than 1,500 tanks. These include elements from all of the major army divisions in the Russian Far East; these units do not typically carry out simultaneous deployments to Belarus - 4,000 miles and seven time zones to the west - for the purpose of training exercises.
The latest arrivals include field hospital units and Su-35 fighter squadrons, which some Western intelligence analysts believe are among the final supporting elements required for mounting a full-scale attack.
The United States assesses that an invasion is "imminent," though Russia denies that it has any intention of mounting an attack. The U.S. Embassy in Kiev has urged American citizens to leave Ukraine using commercial or private means. For their part, Ukrainian officials have downplayed the risk of full-scale invasion, noting that Russia has only mobilized a fraction of the number of ground troops that would be required to take over a nation the size of Ukraine.
Even without an invasion, the tensions are having an immediate effect on Russian and Ukrainian financial markets. As foreign investors move to minimize their exposure to a potential conflict, Russia's stock market has dropped by a third since October; the value of the ruble has hit a 14-month low; and yields on Ukrainian sovereign bonds have skyrocketed.