Tensions Run High in Black Sea as NATO Exercises Come to a Close

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Image courtesy Royal Navy

Published Jul 7, 2021 10:58 PM by The Maritime Executive

Tensions between Russia and NATO are running high at the annual Exercise Sea Breeze maneuvers in the Black Sea, with one Russian diplomat threatening that Western forces risk getting "clocked in the nose" if they get too close to sensitive areas near occupied Crimea. 

Sea Breeze is a yearly military exercise run by NATO and U.S. 6th Fleet, co-hosted with the Ukrainian Navy. This year's edition runs from June 28 through July 10, and it is the busiest year in the exercise's 24-year history, with 32 participating nations and 32 ships. 

The flotilla includes the destroyer HMS Defender, which attracted Russian scrutiny on June 23 when she transited just off the coast of Crimea, inside the 12-nm line. The UK recognizes Crimea as Ukrainian territory, but the peninsula has been occupied by Russia since its annexation in 2014. 

After the freedom of navigation (FONOP) transit, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a statement suggesting that Defender was chased off by warning shots and bombardment. The UK Ministry of Defence denied that any warning shots were fired (or dropped) near Defender. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by telling Russian news agencies that if UK "colleagues don't get it . . . we may drop bombs, and not just in the path but right on target."

The Dutch Ministry of Defence has also accused Russian forces of aggressive behavior, alleging that Russian fighter jets carried out "feint attacks" for hours on the Dutch Navy warship HMNLS Evertsen. The incident allegedly included jamming of Evertsen's electronic equipment. Dutch Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld-Schouten said that there is "no justification for this kind of aggressive act, which needlessly increases the chance of accidents."

Evertsen had been sailing with HMS Defender prior to the run-in, which occurred within international waters, according to Dutch officials. 

Russia considers Crimea its own, and has declared a "maritime border" near its shores. Though it is not provided for in UNCLOS, the Russian government maintains that government vessels must request and receive its permission to transit before entering this zone, and Russian officials have warned NATO forces to stay out. "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," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Tuesday.

Cmdr. Daniel Marzluff, Sixth Fleet's Black Sea Region Engagement Lead, told Newsweek that the exercise was a way to show resolve in the face of Russian aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. 

"Here in the Black Sea, we have three NATO allies that are poised and ready to respond to any type of Russian aggression," Marzluff said. "This is clearly the most effective way to bring a unified front to this kind of rogue action."