MUNICH — An American destroyer is sailing to the Black Sea to conduct naval exercises with Ukraine to demonstrate “solidarity” in response to a clash with Russia that has a top U.S. admiral furious.
“The whole episode in the Sea of Azov was extremely bothersome to me,” Admiral James Foggo, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa, told reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference over the weekend.
Russian forces fired on three Ukrainian naval vessels that attempted to pass through the Kerch Strait, the narrow waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, and arrested the sailors in late November. The maritime incident was the first public act of violence by Russian forces against Ukraine since 2014, when unmarked Russian fighters helped annex Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine. Since the takeover, Moscow has used control of the land on both sides of the waterway to restrict access to key Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.
“We’re showing solidarity,” Foggo said of the USS Donald Cook’s deployment to the region from its home port at Naval Station Rota, Spain.
Russia maintains that the three ships were seized after they tried to force their way through the strait without following standard safety procedures.
“They were apprehended — even though some people have illusions about Crimea — they were apprehended at the place which was Russian territorial waters even before the referendum,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, in reference to the vote that Moscow cites as the basis for its claim to sovereignty over the Crimean side of the strait, during a Saturday panel at the security conference, at which world leaders have gathered annually since the Cold War.
That statement is false, according to U.S. officials and representatives of other NATO member-states, who say that the ships were seized in the Black Sea on the international side of the Kerch Strait. Foggo wasn’t shy about condemning Russia’s imprisonment of the 24 Ukrainian sailors on charges of crossing a Russian border illegally.
“Let me tell you, that irritates me to no end,” Foggo told reporters last week. “They are uniformed Ukrainian sailors and officers and chiefs. They’re not criminals, and they are being charged under a criminal code. They should be protected under the Geneva Convention, which is why the United States and other NATO allies have come to the table and said ‘Release them immediately,’ and they still continue to hold them. That is just absolutely wrong, and it is not the kind of behavior that you would expect from a major power — which Russia wants to be.”
The U.S.-Ukraine joint exercises were planned in conjunction with European Union negotiations over new sanctions on Russian individuals involved in the Kerch Strait incident. Russian naval forces track U.S. warships in the Black Sea as a general matter, but their surface ships can’t stack up to Western fleets.
“Let's face it, the Russian carrier Kuznetsov doesn't even come close to the Ford-class carrier or the Nimitz -class carrier, and the surface navy is not an equivalent match for either the United States Navy or [other] NATO navies in the world,” Foggo said.
The confrontation is most dramatic example of a series of Russian actions, including the construction of a low bridge over the strait that has hampered Ukrainian access to the Sea of Azov, home to the major Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko worries that Russia is trying to set the stage for an annexation of the economically troubled city, but Foggo disagrees.
“It’s economic strangulation,” he said. "No, I don’t think they want to take the port of Mariupol. I think that they’re using other methods to punish the Ukrainians through the economy by restricting shipping traffic in there.”