UPDATED: Ukraine on High Alert as Russian Naval Exercise Threatens to Block Parts of the Black Sea

February 11, 2022 6:35 PM - Updated: February 12, 2022 9:04 AM
Ivan Gren-class amphibious warship RTS Pyotr Morgunov (117) entering the Black Sea on Feb. 9, 2022. Photo by Yörük Işık‏ used with permission

An upcoming Russian naval exercise has Ukraine worried, as the United States predicts a Russian invasion of the country could come any day.

The Russian exercise, which comes during continued tension between Russian and Ukraine, will block parts of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azoz and the Kerch Strait, leading the Ukraine Ministry of Foreign Affairs to put out a statement in protest.

“Unprecedented coverage of maneuvers makes navigation in both seas virtually impossible,” according to the Ukrainian statement. “In essence, this is a significant and unjustified complication of international shipping, especially trade, which can cause complex economic and social consequences, especially for the ports of Ukraine.”

Russia has also continued to amass troops along the border of Ukraine, despite calls from the U.S. to defuse the situation. The country announced its largest military exercise since the Cold War, which will last until Feb. 20, NPR reported. The United States sees the exercise, which is a joint one with Belarus, as a sign of Russia continuing to escalate toward an invasion.

During a press briefing Friday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters that the United States anticipates a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen any day, despite previous thoughts that Russia might wait until the winter Olympics concluded.

“We are ready to continue results oriented diplomacy that addresses the security concerns of the United States, Russia and Europe, consistent with our values and with the principle of reciprocity,” Sullivan said during the briefing. “We’ve continued to make that clear to Russia, in close coordination with our European allies and partners. We are also ready to respond decisively alongside those allies and partners should Russia choose to take military action.”

United States actions would include economic sanctions, continued support to Ukraine and changes to force posture from the U.S. and NATO on eastern flank NATO countries, Sullivan said.

The United States also announced Friday that it would send another 3,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which is stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, according to a senior defense official.

Russia began amassing ships in the Black Sea on Tuesday, when three warships entered the Black Sea, USNI News previously reported. The three Ropucha-class tanks ships – RFS Minsk (127), RFS Korolev (130) and RFS Kaliningrad (102) – entered the Black Sea, according to photos that were provided to USNI News.

Ship spotter Yörük Işık recorded the ships entering the Dardanelles Strait Tuesday morning.
Russian-run outlet TASS news service reported the ships are part of a six-amphibious warship task group that are part of naval exercises.

The amphibious ships are smaller, but they can still carry armored vehicles and a couple hundred military personnel, said Steven Wills, a research analyst with CNA.

“So by themselves, one at the time, they’re not that big, but if you put six of them together, that’s a significant force that might be put ashore someplace to support whatever else the Russians are planning to do on the landward frontiers of the Ukraine,” Wills said.

The Russian navy is another tool for the Russians when it comes to the tensions with Ukraine, said Tom Mahnken, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The options presented by the exercise, including the ability to use it for coercion, is “a particularly attractive instrument for Russian leadership,” Mahnken said.

In its statement, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said that Russia was disregarding international law with its planned exercise.

The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine also put out a statement, via Twitter, condemning the Russian naval exercise.

“Russia’s economic warfare against Ukraine continues,” according to the tweeted statement. “Under the pretext of military exercises, Russia restricts Ukraine’s maritime sovereignty, limits freedom of navigation in the Black Sea/Sea of Azov, & impedes maritime traffic essential to Ukraine’s economy.”

Blocking off Ukraine from the Black Sea can be harmful to the economy, especially if the Russian naval would to block if the country’s ports.

“It’s terrible to become a landlocked country,” Wills said.

It would also possibly prevent help from other countries if Russia were to use the exercise to invade, Mahnken said.

Russia has multiple options from the exercise, Wills said. They could use the exercise as a springboard into an invasion or they could finish the exercise and leave.

“So it’s a great, easy transition from peacetime to wartime, because all of your folks are prepared, organized and operating as they would in wartime other than actually shooting,” he said. “So that’s powerful.”

The Russians are creative and unpredictable, Wills said. They also have a more modern contingent in the Black Sea than they have had in the past, which means they could have a naval effect if the country were to invade.

Ukraine has called on Russia to explain its military actions along its borders, through the use of the Vienna Document, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said via Twitter.

“Russia has 48 hours to reply. In case of absence of reply or its insufficiency/irrelevance, Ukraine will address Russia, as well as other participating states of the Vienna Document, in order to convene an extraordinary meeting where Russia will have to provide explanations,” he said on Twitter.

Kuleba also tweeted that the U.S. plans to provide economic support in addition to military aid.

“Russia must have no doubt: Ukraine and its partners are ready for decisive actions to protect our country,” Kuleba said on Twitter.

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio is a reporter with USNI News. She has a master’s degree in science journalism and has covered local courts, crime, health, military affairs and the Naval Academy.
Follow @hmongilio

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