US, UK, Ukraine, NATO Provocations in the Black Sea near Crimea Risk WWIII

July 1st, 2021 - by Yuras Karmanau / Associated Press & Mike Corder / Associated Press & Vladimir Isashenkov and Daria Litvinova / The Associated Press

Ukraine, NATO Launch Joint Black Sea Drills

Yuras Karmanau / Associated Press

 (June 28, 2021) — KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine and NATO on Monday launched Black Sea drills that will involve dozens of warships, an exercise that follows last week’s incident with a British destroyer off Crimea.

Moscow said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of British destroyer Defender on Wednesday to force her out of an area near the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. 

Britain denied that account, insisted its ship wasn’t fired upon and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters.

The Sea Breeze 2021 maneuvers that began Monday and will last for two weeks are set to involve about 30 warships and 40 aircraft from US and its NATO allies and Ukraine. US destroyer Ross has arrived in the Ukrainian port of Odessa for the drills. 

US Navy Capt. Kyle Gantt noted Monday that a large number of participants in the exercise reflects a shared commitment to ensuring free access to international waters. Moscow has criticized the drills, and the Russian Defense Ministry said it would closely monitor them.

In Wednesday’s incident, Britain insisted the Defender had been making a routine journey through an internationally recognized travel lane and remained in Ukrainian waters near Crimea. The UK, like most of the world, recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine despite the peninsula’s annexation by Russia.

Russia denounced the Defender’s move as a provocation and warned that next time it could fire to hit intruding warships if they again try to test Russian military resolve.

Dutch Navy: Russian Jets Flew Low Over Frigate in Black Sea

Mike Corder / Associated Press

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (June 29, 2021) —Russian warplanes repeatedly flew low over a Dutch navy frigate in the Black Sea last week and carried out “mock attacks,” the Defense Ministry of the Netherlands said Tuesday.

The incident involving the Dutch ship Zr. Ms. Evertsen happened last Thursday southeast of Crimea, the ministry said in a statement.

It came a day after after Russia said one of its warships in the Black Sea fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs to force a British destroyer out of an area near Crimea that Russia claims as its territorial waters. Britain denied that account and insisted its ship wasn’t fired upon.

The Evertsen has been patrolling in the Black Sea with HMS Defender, the British ship that was involved in that incident.

Defense Minister Minister Ank Bijleveld-Schouten called the Russian actions “irresponsible.”

Evertsen has every right to sail there,” she said. “There is no justification whatsoever for this kind of aggressive act, which also unnecessarily increases the chance of accidents.”

She said the Netherlands would speak to Russia about the incident.

The ministry said that the Russian jets, armed with bombs and air-to-surface rockets flew past the frigate between 3:30 p.m and 8:30 p.m. and were followed by “disruptions to the Evertsen’s electronic equipment.”

The Russian Defense Ministry responded in a statement later Tuesday, saying that the military scrambled its warplanes “to prevent the violation of the Russian Federation’s territorial waters” after the Evertsen changed course and headed toward the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. 

The ministry said that after the Su-30 fighter jets and the Su-24 bombers made flyovers “at a safe distance” from the Evertsen, the ship changed course and sailed away.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a move not recognized by most countries, gaining access to its long Black Sea coast. Russia has chafed at NATO warships visiting near Crimea as destabilizing. In April, it declared a broader area off Crimea closed to foreign naval ships.

In April, Russia imposed restrictions on foreign naval movements near Crimea until November in a move that drew strong complaints from Ukraine and the West. Russia rejected the criticism and noted the restrictions wouldn’t interfere with commercial shipping.

Earlier this year, Russia also bolstered its troops near the border with Ukraine and warned Kyiv against using force to reclaim control of the country’s eastern industrial heartland, where a conflict with Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 14,000 people in seven years. Moscow withdrew some of its forces after maneuvers, but Ukrainian officials say many of them remain.

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Putin Says US and UK Were behind Black Sea ‘Provocation’

Vladimir Isashenkov and Daria Litvinova / The  Associated Press

 (June 30, 2021) — MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that an incident involving a British destroyer in the Black Sea couldn’t have triggered a global conflict even if Russia had sunk the warship because the West knows it can’t win such a war.

The tough statement appeared to indicate his resolve to raise the stakes should a similar incident happen again.

Speaking in a marathon call-in show, Putin also revealed that he received the domestically produced Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine and urged Russians to get vaccinated as the country battles a devastating surge of cases and deaths amid widespread hesitancy to get the shot.

Putin was asked about the June 23 incident in the Black Sea, in which Russia said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of Britain’s HMS Defender to force it from an area near Crimea that Moscow claims as its territorial waters. He said a US reconnaissance aircraft had joined what he described as a “provocation” to test Russia’s response. 

Britain, which like most other nations didn’t recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, insisted the Defender wasn’t fired upon and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters. “HMS Defender was conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law,” Britain’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

Asked if the events could have triggered a global war, Putin responded that the West wouldn’t risk a full-scale conflict.

“Even if we had sunk that ship, it would be hard to imagine that it would put the world on the brink of World War III because those who do it know that they can’t emerge as winners in that war, and it’s very important,” Putin said. The statement followed Russian officials’ warning that if a Western warship enters the waters again, the military could fire on it.

Putin charged that the US reconnaissance aircraft that took off from the Greek island of Crete was operating in concert with the British ship on an apparent mission to monitor the Russian military’s response to the British destroyer.

“It was clearly a provocation, a complex one involving not only the British but also the Americans,” he said, adding that Moscow was aware of the US intentions and responded accordingly to avoid revealing sensitive data.

Asked about Putin’s claim, Navy Capt. Wendy Snyder, the chief of public affairs for the US European Command, said that “yes, we did have aircraft in operations,” but reaffirmed the Pentagon’s earlier dismissal of the Russian description of the incident as false.

“We are operating in and watching everything in the Black Sea region, as we always do,” Snyder said.

The Russian leader specifically lamented that the incident closely followed his summit with US President Joe Biden in Geneva this month. 

“The world is undergoing a radical change,” he said. “Our US partners realize that, and that’s why the Geneva meeting took place. But on the other hand, they are trying to secure their monopolist stance, resulting in threats and destructive action such as drills, provocations and sanctions.”

Even though the West doesn’t recognize Crimea as part of Russia, Putin said the naval incident took the controversy to a new level.

“They don’t recognize something — OK, they can keep refusing to recognize it,” he said. “But why conduct such provocations?”

Putin insisted Russia would firmly defend its interests.

“We are fighting for ourselves and our future on our own territory,” he said. “It’s not us who traveled thousands of kilometers (miles) to come to them; it’s them who have come to our borders and violated our territorial waters.”

Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, warned that last week’s Black Sea incident presages a new, riskier level of confrontation.

“Fresh attempts to expose Russian ‘red line’ deterrence as hollow — whether on the ground, in the air, or at sea — would push Moscow to defend what it cannot give up without losing its self-respect,” Trenin said in a commentary. “This would almost inevitably lead to clashes and casualties, which would carry the risk of further escalation. Should this happen, Russia-NATO confrontation would deteriorate literally to the point of brinkmanship, a truly bleak scenario.”

Putin on Wednesday also reaffirmed his claim of a close kinship between the Russian and Ukrainian people, but accused Kyiv of hostility toward Russia and voiced doubt about the value of a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, calling him a Western pawn. 

“Why meet Zelenskyy if he has put his country under full foreign control and key issues for Ukraine are decided not in Kyiv but in Washington, and, to a certain extent, Paris and Berlin?” Putin asked.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba retorted by tweeting that Putin wishes Ukraine’s issues were decided in Moscow. “This is our country and it’s only up to us to decide our fate,” he added.

Earlier this year, Russia bolstered its forces near Ukraine and warned that Moscow could intervene if Kyiv used force to reclaim areas in the east controlled by Russia-backed separatists since a conflict there erupted in 2014. Moscow later pulled back some troops, but Ukrainian authorities said the bulk of them remain close to the border.

Putin spent most of the four-hour “Direct Line” show discussing domestic issues — typical for the tightly choreographed annual rite that helps him polish his image as a strong leader caring for people’s needs. It didn’t feature any questions about Russia’s beleaguered opposition and Putin’s most prominent political foe, Alexei Navalny, who is in prison.

He voiced hope the country could avoid a nationwide coronavirus lockdown amid a surge of new infections. Reported deaths in Russia hit a daily record Wednesday, with authorities reporting 669, but Putin said decisions by regional officials to make vaccinations mandatory for some workers should help.

Russia has been registering over 20,000 new coronavirus cases and about 600 deaths every day since June 24. On Wednesday, 21,042 new infections were recorded.

Russian officials blame the June surge on Russians’ lax attitude toward taking precautions, more infectious variants, and a low rate of vaccinations, which experts attribute to widespread hesitancy to get the shot and limited vaccine production. Although Russia was among the first countries to deploy a vaccine, just over 15% of the population has received at least one shot.

Amid this hesitancy, Putin revealed he received the Sputnik V vaccine. Putin got his first shot in late March out of the public eye and has remained tight-lipped about which vaccine he chose.

On other issues, Putin said Russia has no intention of banning Western social media platforms but emphasized that the government merely wants them to abide by the law, promptly remove inappropriate content and open offices in Russia.

“We tell them: ‘You’re spreading child pornography, or instructions on (how to commit) suicide, or how to create Molotov cocktails. … You must take it down,’ and they simply don’t listen, don’t want to listen to what we tell them,” Putin said. “But this is wrong.”

Associated Press National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington and Sylvia Hui in London contributed.

Russia Says Next Time It May Fire to it Intruding Warships

Vladimir Isachenkov / The Associated Press

MOSCOW (June 24, 2021) — Russia is prepared to target intruding warships if they fail to heed warnings, a senior Russian diplomat declared Thursday after a Black Sea incident in which a British destroyer sailed near Crimea in an area that Russia claims as its territorial waters….

The incident marked the first time since the Cold War that Moscow acknowledged using live ammunition to deter a NATO warship, underlining the rising threat of military collisions amid Russia-West tensions.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that “the inviolability of the Russian borders is an absolute imperative,” adding that it will be protected “by all means, diplomatic, political and military, if needed.”

He sarcastically suggested the British navy should rename its destroyer from Defender to Aggressor and warned that “those who try to test our strength are taking high risks.” Asked what Russia would do to prevent such intrusions in the future, Ryabkov told reporters it would stand ready to fire on targets if warnings don’t work.

“We may appeal to reason and demand to respect international law,” Ryabkov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies. “If it doesn’t help, we may drop bombs and not just in the path but right on target, if colleagues don’t get it otherwise.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov deplored what he described as a “deliberate and well-prepared provocation” by Britain and seconded the tough warning.

“If unacceptable provocative actions are repeated, if those actions go too far, no options to legitimately protect the borders of the Russian Federation could be excluded,” Peskov told reporters.

On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said a patrol ship fired warning shots after the HMS Defender had ignored a notice against intrusion and sailed 3 kilometers (1.6 nautical miles) into Russia’s territorial waters near Sevastopol, the main Russian naval base in Crimea. It said a Russian Su-24 bomber also dropped four bombs ahead of the vessel to persuade the Defender to change course. Minutes later, the Defender left Russian waters, the ministry said.

Britain denied the Defender had been fired on or that bombs were dropped in its path. It insisted the ship was making a routine journey through an internationally recognized travel lane and remained in Ukrainian waters. The UK, like most of the world, recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine despite the peninsula’s 2014 annexation by Russia.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would not say whether he had personally approved the Defender’s voyage but suggested the Royal Navy was making a point by taking that route.

“The important point is that we don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory,” Johnson told reporters Thursday during a visit to an army barracks in England. “It was entirely right that we should vindicate the law and pursue freedom of navigation in the way that we did, take the shortest route between two points, and that’s what we did.”…

On Thursday, British Ambassador Deborah Bronnert visited the Russian Foreign Ministry, which lodged a formal protest.

“It was particularly emphasized that if such provocations are repeated, the British side will bear full responsibility for their possible consequences,” the ministry said.

The Russian navy chief, Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov, said Thursday that the British destroyer’s move was clearly provocative, noting that it ignored the warnings in a bid to test Russia’s resolve.

“They came to see how we act,” he told reporters in St. Petersburg. “And they only reacted to the power of weapons. Our navy acted in a competent and safe manner to stop the provocation.”

In April, Russia declared a broader area off Crimea closed to foreign naval ships until November, a move that drew strong protests from Ukraine and the West.

UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a written statement to Parliament that what he described as a Russian “live fire gunnery exercise” was “out of range” of the Defender’s position and posed no danger to her. He added that she was also overflown by Russian warplanes, some of them flying as low as 500 feet and making maneuvers that were “neither safe nor professional.”

Wallace admitted that at one point the Defender maneuvered “to avoid a hazard presented by a Russian coastguard vessel before re-assuming her intended course.”

A BBC report from HMS Defender did not show bombs being dropped but showed the ship being buzzed by Russian military aircraft and receiving a threat over the radio to change course or be fired upon. 

Footage filmed from a Russian warplane and a drone that was released by the Russian Defense Ministry also showed Russian jets flying close to the Defender but didn’t feature any bombs dropped or warning shots fired. Another video released Thursday showed a Russian coast guard vessel firing warning shots with the Defender seen at a distance. 

Mikhail Khodaryonok, a retired Russian army colonel who works as a military analyst in Moscow, said the Russian warplane apparently dropped bombs miles away from the British ship. He charged that the British denial that Russia had fired warning shots and dropped bombs to chase the Defender away was an attempt to save face.

“They couldn’t admit that they were forced to change course, that they were aware of a threat that weapons would be used against them,” Khodaryonok said in a telephone interview. “The former ruler of the seas couldn’t allow for a loss of face by admitting that they submitted to the demands of the Russian side to change course.”

Associated Press journalists Jill Lawless in London and Daniel Kozin in Moscow contributed to this report.

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