The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey passed through the Bosporus and back into the Mediterranean Sea last week, signaling more than just the end of Sea Shield 2021, U.S. commanders said.
It was also a stark reminder to Moscow that the Black Sea is not just a Russian lake.
“Our operations in the Black Sea demonstrate our commitment to NATO partners and support the provision of stability in the maritime environment,” said Capt. Joseph A. Baggette, commander of the Monterey.
The Monterey and the USS Thomas Hudner, a Navy destroyer, participated in Sea Shield 2021, a multinational naval exercise hosted by Romania. They trained alongside naval forces from several countries in the region, including Albania, Bulgaria and Croatia. Along with learning how to fight together even if the participants don’t speak the same language, they practiced anti-submarine warfare and countering sea mines, among other drills.
“Displaying our commitment to allies has always been and always will be a major mission in the 6th Fleet,” Capt. Baggett said.
The 6th Fleet, based in Naples, Italy, is responsible for conducting U.S. naval operations in Europe and Africa.
“This is a great opportunity for our ship to operate with our NATO allies and partners in the Black Sea region,” Navy Cmdr. Bo Mancuso, commanding officer of the Hudner, said at the start of Sea Shield 2021.
Bordered by Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia, the Black Sea has long been a critical waterway for maritime commerce in Europe and a focus of Russian commercial and military interest since the days of the Romanov emperors. Russia’s Black Sea coastline gives the Kremlin its only warm-water ports and serves as a springboard for military operations as far away as Syria.
More broadly, the sea straddles what a recent Middle East Institute survey called the “fault lines” among major clusters of global power: Europe to the west, China and Russia to the east, and Iran and Syria to the south.
The Black Sea has taken on even greater strategic importance after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. A workshop of leading regional experts run by the Rand Corp. think tank in 2019 said Moscow is pursuing multiple strategic goals through a more powerful presence in the sea.
The Black Sea region “figures prominently in Russia’s overarching goal to restore influence and control along its periphery,” Rand analysts Stephen J. Flanagan and Irina A. Chindea wrote in a summary of the workshop’s findings.
“Russia’s occupation and militarization of Crimea, modernization of the Black Sea Fleet, and expanded forces in the Southern Military District have strengthened its ability to secure its vital southwestern flank from attack, dissuade and intimidate neighbors, and project power into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant,” they wrote. “Moscow seeks to transform the Black Sea, along with the Sea of Azov, into virtual internal waterways, where Russia can have the kind of freedom of action it has achieved in the Caspian Sea.”
A question of staying power
Although the U.S. Navy has trained in the Black Sea in the past, analysts say, it appears the Pentagon has been stepping up its game to counter an increasingly aggressive Russia and to reassure smaller allies along Russia’s western borders. But whether the Biden administration has the staying power to confront and contain Moscow is in question.
A naval exercise such as Sea Shield 2021 “definitely gets the Russian attention. But in order to be effective and sustainable, it also requires building out the capacity of our allies,” said Brent Sadler, a retired Navy captain now with the Heritage Foundation. “We’ll see how long it is sustained.”
The Navy often operates in the Black Sea in a manner it says is consistent with the Montreux Convention, the 1936 agreement that regulates the transit of naval warships through the Turkish-controlled Bosporus, the only outlet to the Mediterranean.
Moscow’s annexation of Crimea may have been an act of aggression unprecedented in modern times, but it’s not Russia’s only aggression against a fellow country bordering the Black Sea. Russia defeated Georgia in a sharp but brief border clash in August 2008, and it maintains a large military presence there.
Retired Navy Adm. Mark Montgomery said the naval exercises in the Black Sea are designed to demonstrate U.S. presence and credibility to smaller countries in Russia’s shadow. What was likely more alarming to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his security advisers were the U.S. Air Force missions in August that sent B-52 bombers over the Black Sea, he said.
“The bombers were much more of a realistic demonstration. That is how we would actually deal with the Russians,” said Adm. Montgomery, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They came down and looked like targeting missions.”
While the U.S. warship exercises in the Black Sea were about demonstrating credibility and concern to allies, the B-52 flights were about demonstrating to Russia the credibility of the U.S. strike capacity, the former admiral said.
The B-52 mission was of such concern to Russia that it scrambled a pair of Su-27 Flanker fighters to intercept the bomber. The U.S. said the Russian pilots flew in an “unsafe and unprofessional manner.” The fighter jets crossed within 100 feet of the nose of the B-52 several times and used their afterburners to cause turbulence and restrict the U.S. plane’s ability to maneuver, Air Force officials said.
The U.S. maintained that the B-52 was operating in international airspace in accordance with recognized international safety standards.
“While the Russian aircraft were operating in international airspace, they jeopardized the safety of flight of the aircraft involved. We expect them to operate within international standards set to ensure safety and prevent accidents,” Gen. Jeff Harrigan, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, said at the time.
Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Adm. Montgomery said, there is more of a need to shore up the credibility of U.S. partnerships with allies in that region.
“It does demonstrate to Putin that we will operate in what he considers his backyard or side yard,” Adm. Montgomery said.