Yesterday, the U.S. Navy began training with their Ukrainian counterparts in the Black Sea. The naval war game Sea Breeze kicks off as rebels continue to clash with Kiev’s troops in the country’s east—this despite a formal ceasefire that began on Sept. 5.
The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Ross is the lead vessel for this year’s Sea Breeze. The Navy has been running the event in the Black Sea annually for 13 years, according to an official fact sheet.
Canada, Georgia, Romania, Spain and Turkey are also taking part in the training. Thirteen warships are playing in the war game.
The Pentagon usually insists explains that regularly scheduled exercises like Sea Breeze aren’t linked to any specific real-world event. In other words, officially the training maneuvers have nothing to do with Ukraine’s simmering insurgency, which began this spring when Russian forces seized Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula and subsequently supported separatists in the country’s east.
Sea Breeze is taking place well away from the main fighting along Ukraine’s long border with Russia. But that doesn’t mean the naval war game isn’t a powerful statement by the U.S., Ukraine and their allies.
Russia has countered with statements of its own. A Russian jet buzzed a separate American destroyer in the Black Sea in April. Canadian officials say a similar incident occurred the first weekend of September, when another Russian warplane flew threateningly close to the frigate HMCS Toronto.
Washington probably views Sea Breeze as another opportunity to reassure America’s allies in Eastern Europe, including Black Sea NATO members Romania and Bulgaria.
But all things considered, the Ukrainian navy and coast guard definitely appear to be a central focus of this year’s naval practice session. Kiev’s eight vessels dominate the exercise.
The Ukrainian sailing branch’s largest ship, the 3,600-ton flagship Hetman Sahaidachniy, leads the country’s contingent. The Soviet-era frigate also happens to be named after a national hero who fought the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the 17th century.
But the rest of the ships are far less imposing. Three are support types meant for non-combat missions. The other four combat vessels all displace fewer than 600 tons.
The NATO ships dwarf these boats, which are all either hand-me-downs from the USSR or based on equally dated designs. Ross alone is more than 200 times heavier with a full load than the diminutive 40-ton Zhuk-class patrol boat Skadovsk.
Kiev has tried to modernize its navy, but political upheaval and the recent crisis have delayed the plan. The Kremlin seized a number of Ukrainian ships when it forcefully annexed the Crimea region this spring.
Moscow eventually returned many of the vessels and released their crews. But Kiev was understandably embarrassed by the episode.
Ukraine had expected to buy four corvettes—slightly smaller than the Sahaidachniy, but far bigger than the Skadovsk—by 2021. In July, Ukraine’s acting defense minister Ivan Rusnak indefinitely postponed the delivery of the new ships.
It gets worse. Last month, Russian-supported insurgents tried to take over the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. Rebel artillery sank one government patrol boat—a Zhuk-type, depicted in the picture above—and damaged another during the offensive.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko visited Mariupol in person recently, hoping to rally the troops. Ukrainian sailors no doubt could use a morale boost, as well. Training alongside a powerful NATO flotilla is a good start.