- Russian forces have had several close encounters with NATO militaries in the Black Sea.
- Those encounters come amid ongoing tensions following Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
- Those actions may be attempts to bait US and NATO forces, the top US admiral in Europe warned.
Aggressive Russian maneuvers around US and NATO forces in the Black Sea in recent weeks appear meant to provoke a response, the top US Navy admiral in Europe said on July 21.
NATO militaries conducted exercises in the Black Sea from mid-June to mid-July, the largest of which, Sea Breeze, involved 32 ships and 40 aircraft from 32 countries.
In the days before Sea Breeze began on June 28, Russian aircraft conducted what Western officials called unsafe flights around NATO warships in the Black Sea. Russian and NATO forces continued to operate near each other in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea over the following weeks.
The latest encounters came amid heightened military activity in the region, but such interactions are not uncommon in the Black Sea, which has remained tense since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
“NATO allies and partners operating in that area by themselves are constantly shadowed by Russian vessels, and by and large, those interactions are safe and professional, although they’re meant to intimidate,” Adm. Robert Burke, commander of US Navy Forces in Europe and Africa, said at a US Navy Memorial event.
“When a strike aircraft overflies a destroyer at 100 feet altitude and right over top, our [commanding officers] are making a judgment call whether that strike fighter is on an attack profile or not,” Burke added. “It could be argued that they’re baiting us into shooting first. We’re not going to do that first without provocation, but I ‘m also not going to ask my commanding officers to take the first shot on the chin.”
Russian and NATO forces frequently operate in close proximity. Russia regularly reports intercepts of NATO aircraft flying near Russian borders. NATO militaries often intercept Russian aircraft flying near their borders.
US officials have on multiple occasions criticized Russia for what they call “unsafe and unprofessional” intercepts of US aircraft and warships in the seas around Europe. Those include low-altitude flights over US warships, which are especially risky because of uncertainty about intent and the potential for accidents.
In the past, Russian aircraft would fly without weapons in a configuration called “wings clean,” Burke’s predecessor, now-retired Adm. James Foggo, said in 2019.
“In the interactions and the intercepts I see today, they’re coming out’wings dirty,’ or they have weapons on board,” Foggo said at the time. “That’s another bit of the calculus that goes in the commanding officer’s mind on … what is the intent of that pilot.”
In his remarks this month, Burke said those close encounters have “tactical risk” that “could turn into a strategic issue.”
“That’s a big concern with this increasing aggressiveness. So we’ll have to watch that very closely,” Burke added.
Russian and NATO forces have continued to train in the Black Sea since Sea Breeze ended on July 10. NATO navies worked on interoperability and readiness, while Russian aircraft and coastal-defense units practiced attacking enemy forces.
Burke said this month that the seizure of Crimea was an “extreme” form of “constant bullying” by Russia that is meant to influence other countries and the Russian public.
That Russian action, including military buildups and restricting access to international waters, ultimately “results in some nations avoiding going to those areas, which is exactly the behavior change that the Russians are seeking,” Burke said.
Russia is “not 10 feet tall” and its leaders “understand and respect” NATO capabilities, but it has “heavily modernized” its military, particularly its submarines, and learned from watching the US fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, Burke said.
“The Russian government is still very much an existential threat to the United States,” Burke said. “I think is as much of a threat today as the Soviet Union was in a Cold War.”