A Russian Sukhoi SU-24 makes a low altitude pass of the USS Donald Cook in the Black Sea. Photo via US Navy video screengrab.
KYIV, Ukraine — Last week the US Navy sent three ships, including two destroyers, into the Black Sea to conduct military exercises alongside NATO allies and Ukrainian naval forces. True to form, Moscow flexed its military muscles, signaling the Kremlin’s displeasure with US forces operating within an area where Russia is trying to entrench its presence and influence.
A Russian Su-24 Fencer warplane made a low flyby past the USS Donald Cook, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, while it was operating in international waters on Sunday. The Russian fighter-bomber scorched past the US destroyer’s port side at a high subsonic speed and low altitude. Based on a video of the incident posted to social media by the Navy’s 6th Fleet, the encounter did not appear to be unsafe. Nevertheless, such operations always carry the risk of unanticipated, lethal consequences due to accident or miscalculation.
— U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet (@USNavyEurope) January 31, 2021
As part of a NATO exercise, the Cook is currently in the Black Sea operating alongside the destroyer USS Porter and the USNS Laramie. A replenishment oiler operated by Military Sealift Command, the Laramie is refueling the warships during operations. The Porter entered the Black Sea on Thursday.
While in the Black Sea, the Navy warships have participated in a passage exercise alongside Ukrainian navy ships — a move that underscores American support for the embattled post-Soviet country, which has been locked in a stalemated land war against a Russian invasion force since 2014.
The deployment “demonstrates that we stand together with NATO allies and partners to maintain a safe, secure and prosperous European region and global security environment,” Navy spokesman Cmdr. Kyle Raines said.
Responding to America’s naval presence in the region, Russian forces reportedly repositioned a Bastion missile defense system within Crimea, a peninsular territory in the Black Sea that Russia invaded and seized from Ukraine in 2014.
.@USNavyEurope @USNavy ships participated in a passage exercise with Ukrainian Navy ships in the Black Sea, a demonstration of our shared commitment to maritime stability and security! #PartnershipStrong #USUkrainePartnership pic.twitter.com/DwpF4YXttS
— U.S. Embassy Kyiv (@USEmbassyKyiv) February 1, 2021
Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the Black Sea has emerged as a geopolitical hotspot, pitting NATO and Russian forces against each other in a tit-for-tat chess game of dueling exercises and patrols. The Black Sea basin is on Russia’s southwestern frontier, and Crimea has become a fortified redoubt from which Russia can project power across the region. Russia deployed its advanced Bastion coastal defense missiles to Crimea in 2015. In December 2019, Russia conducted exercises to test those coastal missile defense batteries.
Moreover, Moscow has garrisoned some 40,000 troops in Crimea and deployed nuclear weapons-capable missiles and bombers to the occupied territory, as well as Russia’s most advanced surface-to-air missile systems, according to Ukrainian and NATO officials. Russia has also begun to build new warships in Crimea; a move that Washington has criticized.
Amid Russia’s militarization of Crimea, the US Navy has asserted its presence in the Black Sea. To that end, Washington has taken steps to help build up Ukraine’s navy as a regional counterbalance against Russia. The US and its NATO partners have also stepped up military exercises in the region.
The Spanish air force has six fighter aircraft currently deployed to Romania for NATO air policing duties alongside Romanian warplanes in the Black Sea region.
“The Black Sea is of strategic importance to NATO,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement, adding: “In response to Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its ongoing military build-up in the Black Sea, the Alliance has increased its defensive presence in the region and remains strongly committed to Black Sea security.”