The US and 31 allies and partners inaugurated the 21st Sea Breeze exercises in Odessa, Ukraine, on Monday. The drills, positioned immediately off Russia’s Crimean coast, are the largest yet and come as Kiev is increasing pressure on NATO to be admitted to the alliance.
A ceremony in the Ukrainian port city on Monday declared the opening of the massive drills, which will run until July 10 and feature a variety of nautical exercises, from amphibious warfare and anti-submarine warfare to diving, maritime interdiction operations, air defense, and search and rescue, according to the US Navy.
In addition to the US and Ukraine, 30 other nations are participating, including Albania, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, France, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Morocco, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Senegal, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. They have collectively contributed 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft and 18 special operations and dive teams.
“The United States is proud to partner with Ukraine in co-hosting the multinational maritime exercise Sea Breeze, which will help enhance interoperability and capabilities among participating nations,” Kristina Kvien, Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Ukraine, said in a statement last week. “We are committed to maintaining the safety and security of the Black Sea.”
Ignoring Russian Sovereignty in Crimea
Last week, Russian aircraft and warships acted to deter two different NATO warships in the Black Sea for the Sea Breeze drills from violating Russian territorial waters near Crimea.
One incident on June 23 saw the British destroyer HMS Defender sail within 10 nautical miles of the Crimean coast, violating both Russian territorial integrity and sea closures associated with Russian military drills. Sukhoi Su-24 naval strike aircraft dropped bombs in front of the Defender to get her attention and an Okhotnik-class patrol boat fired warning shots near Defender, as well.
The Defender claimed to be sailing through Ukrainian waters and to have done nothing wrong because, according to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “we don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
Another incident the following day saw Su-24 and Su-30 fighters scrambled to deter the Dutch frigate Eversten, which had suddenly changed course toward Russian waters.
"Such actions call into question the relevance of the most fundamental document - the Russia-NATO act,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said in response. “We proceed from the fact that it must be respected, but the question cannot but arise, how, say, permanent rotation differs from the permanent presence.”
With all of the NATO-friendly aircraft in the area, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet saw fit to test out its S-400 Triumf air defense systems, a surface-to-air missile battery that has served as an effective deterrent to Western aircraft in Syria. The Defense Ministry has also said it is keeping a very close eye on the activities of Sea Breeze participants before, during, and after the drills.
Kiev Pushes to Join NATO
Although Ukraine has sought to join the US-led NATO alliance since the 1990s, the administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has stepped up the campaign, claiming accession to NATO is the only way to settle the conflict in the Donets River basin and urging NATO nations to protect Ukraine from Russia. Washington and Brussels have signaled that Kiev could one day join if it sufficiently reforms its political system and civil society to be more democratic.
Earlier this year, Zelenskyy’s government approved a plan for retaking Crimea, where the Crimean Tatar and Russian-speaking majority voted to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia in 2014 after the new right-wing nationalist government in Kiev, ushered into power by a US-backed coup, undertook measures attacking the status of the country’s large Russian-speaking minority. The same measures set off the crisis in the Russian-speaking Donbas, where several breakaway “people’s republics” rebelled from Kiev’s control and defended their independence ever since.
No Western nation recognizes the Crimean referendum’s democratic legitimacy or the autonomy of the Donbas republics, claiming both were engineered by Russia. NATO has used the rebellions to more aggressively push its membership eastward, positioning thousands of troops on the Russian frontier in what it calls an Enhanced Forward Presence.