Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy chief of General Staff, said Monday that the alliance's naval deployment in the Black Sea "cannot but provoke concern" with unidentified sources in the Russian military saying a surface strike group was being gathered up there.
According to a Russian military intelligence source, the NATO warships that have entered the Black Sea carry over 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles between them.
The alliance said the group of four ships, namely the Spanish SPS Admiral Juan de Bourbon, the German FGS Luebeck, the Polish ORP General K Pulaski and the U.S. frigate USS Taylor, has been performing "routine port visits and exercises" with other members of the alliance bordering the Black Sea since August 21.
NATO said the deployment had been planned for over a year, adding that Turkey had been notified of the requirement to transit the Bosporus strait in June, long before the conflict in Georgia.
It also said that, in accordance with the Montreux Convention, the ships would leave within 21 days of their arrival.
NATO's deputy commander of the Allied Maritime Component Command was quoted as saying the group, which he called a "a standing core element of the NATO Response Force," was performing "a pre-planned routine visit to the Black Sea region to interact and exercise with our NATO partners Romania and Bulgaria."
Vice-Admiral Pim Bedet also said the exercises were meant to "to maintain high levels of interoperability and cohesion within the Alliance."
There are several other NATO ships in Black Sea waters, some of which have delivered humanitarian aid to Georgia, although Russia has suggested that the aid missions could be a cover for arms shipments to facilitate aggression against South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow has recently recognized as independent states.