Washington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & Security
Washington, DC 20001

A Russian ship made unexpected radio contact with the American destroyer Ross on July 2nd, following live-fire drills between the US and Ukraine. The Russians advised the crew to leave this place. A naval drill is being held here by the Russian Navy.

The Americans were in the Black Sea for their own exercise, Sea Breeze 21, which has been held every year since 1997 by Ukraine and the United States in collaboration with international partners and allies. Ukrainian quick attack craft have circled the destroyer for the past two days, while fighter fighters have buzzed overhead. Hundreds of bullets were fired from the Navy’s machine guns. That move was part of a drill that had been arranged ahead of time.

Four Russian warships, however, remained a constant presence, sometimes visible while loitering four or five miles away, and sometimes matching Ross’s direction and speed from barely a mile and a half away.

The officers on the Ross’s bridge were adamant after being asked to leave. They responded that they were conducting an international exercise in international waters. We, too, have a right to be here.

Unidentified aircraft — thought to be Russian planes and maritime patrol aircraft — were picked up on the ship’s radar three times the same morning, prompting Ross’ leadership to summon crews to the deck. SNOOPIE teams, as they are known, are on standby to photograph and film any encounters between the ship and potential hostile actors. Even though they didn’t see any action that day, because the planes never came within visual range, the leaders were alert enough to keep them close by.

Other bodies of water show Russia’s presence — its submarines lurk in the Mediterranean and far north, while its ships and aircraft patrol the Baltic Sea — but the Black Sea is distinct. In 2008, Russia launched an invasion on Georgia, a Black Sea neighbor. It annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, a move that NATO has yet to recognize but which Russia has used to massively increase its claims on Black Sea waters, as well as subsurface gas and oil.

This year was more tense than most at Sea Breeze. Despite the fact that the exercise had been planned for a long time and that the high attendance was ascribed to it being one of the first major international exercises after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, Russian activities have portrayed the exercise in a new light.

On the surface, Sea Breeze is about interoperability. After its fleet was decimated in 2014, Ukraine is rebuilding its navy, and its sailors must learn how to use the new equipment they’re getting — and, more critically, how to use it alongside US and NATO allies as part of an integrated task group tuned into a single maritime picture.

The operating environment is changing, as evidenced by a series of disinformation attempts during Sea Breeze, in which an actor — the Navy either didn’t know or wouldn’t say who — made a handful of NATO ships appear on automatic identification system trackers to be in the Crimean waters claimed by Russia. This happened to Defender and a Dutch warship prior to the exercise, to Ross the night before the first at-sea session of Sea Breeze, and to an Italian destroyer later in the week.


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