The Black Sea has been the scene of frequent and close clashes between Russian and Western military forces in recent weeks.
In a major incident in late June, Russia said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs to force a British destroyer out of an area near Crimea which Moscow claims as its territorial waters. London denied this account and insisted their ship had not been targeted.
Just a day later, Russian fighter jets repeatedly flew over a Dutch Navy frigate and carried out “mock attacks,” the Netherlands Defense Ministry said.
A new wave of incidents were reported this week as the United States and Ukraine conducted a NATO military exercise in the Black Sea known as “Sea Breeze” with more than 30 countries.
So what is Russia’s final stage in the Black Sea, and how dangerous can muscle flexing become?
Euronews spoke with a foreign policy expert to find out what lies behind the recent spate of clashes in the strategic Black Sea.
“It’s about Crimea”
Gustav Gressel, senior policy researcher in the Wider Europe program of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told Euronews that the recent measures taken by Russia were a way to assert its sovereignty over Crimea.
“The first thing is, of course, that Russia regards Crimea as Russian and it wants the West to recognize Crimea as such,” the expert told Euronews.
Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, a move unrecognized by most countries.
“The second thing is that Russia does not want to have a NATO military presence in the Black Sea and it aggressively harasses any Western ship that enters, not only near Crimea, but also in international waters,” Gressel added. .
Russia said on Wednesday it was following a Spanish Navy ship in the Black Sea en route to participate in Sea Breeze.
“When they captured Crimea, the Russians also captured a large number of oil platforms and gas drilling facilities in the Black Sea, which stretch as far as the Romanian coast,” Gressel continued, “and they watch them very aggressively.”
“It basically gives them a position to cut Ukraine off completely from maritime traffic if they want to.”
Gressel noted that there were precedents, notably in 2018 when Moscow seized Ukrainian warships and their crews near the Kerch Strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov.
Russia claimed Ukrainian ships violated strait transit procedures, while Ukrainians said they were traveling in international waters.
The Russian Coast Guard fired shots, then seized the ships and their crew of 24 Ukrainian sailors. The sailors were held for 10 months and before returning home as part of a prisoner exchange.
“The Kerch Strait incident in 2018 was actually quite serious, but the victim was Ukraine,” said Gressel, which is not a great power in Western Europe.
In April of this year, Russia declared exclusion zones off Crimea for six months, closing the area to foreign warships.
Gressel told Euronews the move did not serve the purpose for which the exclusion zones were designed by international law and were only there to “exert arbitrary pressure” while harming Ukraine’s capacity to export its agricultural production this summer.
The move sparked strong complaints from Ukraine and Western countries, but Moscow dismissed the criticism and said the restrictions would not interfere with commercial shipping.
The incident with the British warship last month took place in one of the exclusion zones, as the Dutch ship approached it.
West being “too nice”
In all of these incidents, the expert told Euronews, “you see the Russians pushing and they see how we react. And if there is no serious counterattack, they push further and become more aggressive.” .
“They have become more confident in the last few years that this stuff is accepted,” he added.
The reactions from Western countries consisted mainly of “protests and protest notes,” Gressel told Euronews.
“I think the most important thing is to show the Russians that you won’t back down because of it. And you kind of repeat the exercise, and still keep having exercises with the Ukrainians, you still go in the black Sea.”
The expert told Euronews that the West should respond with “tit for tat” measures when Russia breaks maritime laws.
“Russia openly violates international maritime law, but on the other hand, it categorically expects this law to be respected by European nations when Russian ships, for example, (…) cross the Channel or when the Russian fleet wipes out a big North Atlantic storm in British protected space, “he said.
“We don’t need to be nice. We don’t have to refuel your aircraft carrier in safe Spanish waters if you play that way,” the expert continued.
He noted, however, that this harsher approach was “in its infancy” among Europeans. “It’s not widely agreed, at least among politicians, on how you should play this,” Gressel said.
Moscow denounces Western “provocation”
Asked about the incident with the British HMS Defender, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced a “provocation” to test Russia’s response.
“It was clearly a provocation, a complex provocation involving not only the British but also the Americans,” he said on a live broadcast last week.
Putin claimed that a US reconnaissance plane was operating in concert with the British ship as part of an apparent mission to monitor the Russian military’s response to the British destroyer.
The Pentagon admitted it had an aircraft in operation. “We operate and monitor everything in the Black Sea region, as we always do,” said a US official.
But Putin insisted that the recent naval incident has taken the feud over the annexation of Crimea to a new level.
“They don’t recognize something – OK, they can continue to refuse to recognize it,” he said. “But why make such provocations? “
“We are fighting for ourselves and our future on our own territory,” he said. “We are not the ones who have traveled thousands of kilometers to come to them; they are the ones who came to our borders and violated our territorial waters, ”the Russian president said on the show.
“Even if we had sunk this ship, it would be hard to imagine that it would put the world on the brink of World War III because those who do know that they cannot come out victorious in this war, and that is very important, ”Putin said.
The comments followed warning from Russian authorities that if a Western warship re-entered the waters, the military could shoot it.
“No World War III from the Black Sea”
On the possibility that incidents between warships could escalate further, Gressel said: “It depends very much on who the Navy is.”
“What I’ve heard from US Navy sailors is that their incident management agreements with the Russians are still working.”
“It’s more of a gray area when it comes to other navies, if the Russians feel more daring to do stupid things and feel that there is less chance of infringing on their movements.”
“Otherwise, I don’t see World War III coming out of these incidents. These are statements made by warships on different territorial claims, but then again, these are all statements,” Gressel said on a more reassuring note. .
“You can see with the [British] Defend how careful the Russians were despite the propaganda that they were throwing bombs and shooting through the bow etc. They were shooting at a great distance and they did not engage in anything extremely dangerous with regard to the West. “
“The British were prepared and they signaled their preparation to the Russians, and that dissuaded them enough,” added the foreign policy expert.
“So I think that with the current set of incidents, of course we are not in a comfort zone, we are not in good relations, but we are in the margins of controllability”, concluded Gressel.