Some 30 countries, including the US and Ukraine, participated in Sea Breeze 2021. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.
I’m standing on the bridge of the USS Ross waiting for the Russian warplanes to arrive. It’s a clear day on the Black Sea with little wind or waves. The mood on the US Navy destroyer is focused. The crew display the confident calmness that comes from good training and absolute trust in one’s comrades and commanders.
A few sailors gathered around a radarscope tell me that two Russian Su-24 attack aircraft are inbound, coming in from the destroyer’s aft, port side. I step into the open air and stare into the distance, trying to pick out the incoming warplanes above the blue horizon. I strain my eyes in vain for a few moments until at last I pick out the faint, twin trails of jet exhaust. And then I see the two aircraft. They’re low, definitely less than 1,000 feet high. The little dots quickly grow into the telltale shapes of two swivel-winged, Russian Su-24s. Denoting their high subsonic speed, there is no sound until the warplanes are practically abeam the US destroyer.
The Russian jets roar past and bank hard into a climb. They come back for a second, third, and fourth time. All the while, the silhouettes of two Russian warships loom like shadowing sharks a few miles out in the distance.
This is what great power competition looks like.
“It does feel different. I’ve very rarely been on a ship where we’re being tailed by someone like the Russians,” says Rodolfo Lopez, command master chief of the USS Ross. “We gotta make sure that we’re standing a vigilant watch, that we’re ready for anything, and that we are out here to support our allies and keep the Black Sea and the 6th Fleet [area of responsibility] safe.”
The USS Ross is in the Black Sea as part of a NATO naval exercise called Sea Breeze, taking place in June and July 2021 and co-hosted by the US Navy’s 6th Fleet and Ukraine. With Russia increasing its military capability in the Black Sea, the annual naval drills are meant to send a strong message that NATO and its partners are not willing to cede the Black Sea region to Moscow.
Headquartered in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa and with about 30 countries participating, Sea Breeze 2021 is also meant to underscore NATO solidarity with Ukraine, a country that’s been locked in a low-intensity land war with Russia since 2014. During the Sea Breeze exercise, the USS Ross and its coterie of Ukrainian and NATO warships pass within about 20 miles of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula that Russia invaded and seized in 2014.
A US Arleigh Burke-class destroyer such as the Ross packs a lot of firepower. In addition to a 5-inch gun on the forecastle, the Ross is armed with land attack cruise missiles, ship-to-ship missiles, and antiaircraft missiles. Altogether, when this single ship is in the Black Sea, it’s a balance of power game-changer.
“We’re capable of defending ourselves, in the event that we need to,” says Navy Cmdr. John John, commander of the USS Ross.
Russian warships begin shadowing the USS Ross only hours after we embark from Odesa. During the three days of at-sea war games, the Russian vessels remain within visual range — advancing to within about 1.5 miles of the Ross by the third day. The interactions at sea with the Russian warships and warplanes never exceed what the Americans deem “safe and professional behavior.” Nevertheless, the Russians’ constant presence within visual range of the Ross clearly signals Moscow’s discontent with having a US Navy destroyer operating in the Black Sea.
I have to admit, my senses are on overdrive amid all the Russian run-ins. This is exciting stuff — but you’d hardly know it based on the outward demeanor of the American crew, who collectively brush off the Russian encounters as business as usual.
“I think the message that [the Russians] are trying to send is that they’re operating in international airspace just like we’re operating in international waters,” John says. “We expect to have routine, safe, and professional interactions with every military that we encounter on the high seas and in international waters.”
On the third day of drills, a pair of Ukrainian Su-25 attack aircraft conduct simulated attack runs on the Ross as part of an air defense exercise. It’s impressive to observe the Soviet-era aircraft snarling low over the horizon. But there’s an unexpected twist to this day’s war game, which supplies a dose of real-world gravitas.
As the Ukrainian attack planes circle in again and again, a Russian warship lingers about 1.5 miles off the Ross’ port side. Incidentally (and I’m sure this is just a coincidence), the Ukrainian Su-25s repeatedly fly directly over the Russian ship on each pass. It does not escape me that just a few hundred miles to the northeast of here, Ukrainian and Russian troops lob artillery at each other every day along an entrenched front line in Ukraine’s embattled Donbas region.
After three days of war games, the Ross returns to Odesa. As the Ukrainian city’s skyline slowly emerges over the horizon, I think about what the view looks like in the opposite direction — what the Ross and its American flag must symbolize to Ukrainians after seven long years of war.
“It motivates us to be able to support what the Ukrainians are doing,” John says. “Because ultimately, we’re inextricably linked by the sea. Our safety, security, and prosperity are all linked together. We don’t just raise our right hand and take an oath to defend our nation — we do it for the world.”
This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine as “Toe-to-Toe With Russia on the Black Sea.” Exercise Sea Breeze 2021 took place from June 28 to July 10.