The game pieces are set in place. Large scale military exercises have commenced in Belarus, the Black Sea and other areas. The buildup to hostilities is in its final phase with pressure on Ukraine intensifying by the hour and Moscow’s geopolitical moves shrouded in ambiguity.
Now is the time for Western focus to shift to the big picture and the realities of the moment. Russia now appears far more likely to move militarily than it is to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. This has been apparent for weeks now. However, misreads on Russian intentions both geopolitical and military by Western diplomats and intelligence agencies have kept their heads embedded in the sand for weeks. During that period of miscues, precious time has been lost.
Russia’s upcoming naval exercises on the Black Sea are raising a considerable amount of concern. With the arrival of the final batch of amphibious assault ships and an additional Kilo class conventionally powered attack sub, the Black Sea Fleet announced that missile and gunfire exercises will take place between 13 and 19 February with the exercise expected to end on the 20th. A portion of the exercises will take place near the southern coast of Ukraine.
Ukraine is already complaining that the exercises are tantamount to a blockade since they will make safe navigation in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov very difficult. The foreign ministry of Ukraine said Russia’s actions “show blatant disregard for the rules and principles of international law.” Kiev has long accused Russia of attempting to strangle trade from its through de facto blockades. Ukraine, a leading exporter of steel, grain and sunflower oil, carries exports through ports on the Black and Azov Seas. These ports will be adversely affected by the upcoming Russian naval exercises.
The burgeoning crisis in eastern Ukraine will not be restricted to the air and land should Russia’s intentions prove hostile and the balloon goes up. A potential conflict will also include a sea element as well. Today, the Russian government announced its intention to move over 10 naval vessels from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea ostensibly to take part in upcoming military exercises. The vessels will include landing craft and support ships, according to Russian media reports. No mention was made regarding the inclusion of major warships. However, given that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is nearby, Russia has a host of frigates, destroyers, submarines and other warships already in close proximity. This gives Russia additional options both operationally and in the political realm.
According to media reports, as well as personal sources, the US is considering sending warships to the Black Sea too, as a show of support for Ukraine. Deploying US Navy vessels to the Black Sea will also serve as a warning to Moscow that the US is closely monitoring the buildup of Russian forces in the region. Moving warships into the Black Sea area requires some preparation. Under the terms of the Montreaux Convention, Turkey has control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles connecting the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. The US will have to give Turkey 14 days notice of its intent to send warships through the passages and into the Black Sea.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, surface elements of the US Sixth Fleet, as well as surface ships from various NATO allies, have operated in the Black Sea on a regular basis. There has been no indication of what size naval force the US might be considering, but given how steady the crisis between Russia and Ukraine seems to be moving, it is safe to assume that it would include multiple warships with various capabilities and weapons systems onboard.