US and Ukraine Begin Military Drills in Black Sea, Despite Russian Pushback

At the end of June, the United States and Ukraine began military drills in the Black Sea despite pushback from Russia. According to Reuters, the drills — labeled Sea Breeze 2021 — follow increased tension between NATO and Russia. Ukraine says that they are engaging in these drills to gain experience in multinational peacekeeping operations. This issue is quite complex mainly because of Crimea: the peninsula off the southern coast of Ukraine that grants access to the Black Sea. Russia’s claim is that they annexed Crimea in 2014, but Crimea is internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. Therefore, the U.S. and Ukraine claim that they can conduct these operations because the Black Sea is off the coast of “Ukrainian” Crimea. The operations inflame pre-existing tensions in this area, since Russia has sought control over Crimea as a strategic geopolitical asset.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that, “It goes without saying that this is provocative muscle flexing. Combat deployment of such a scale near Russian territory evokes a corresponding reaction from us. Washington and its allies are systematically turning the Black Sea from a space of cooperation, created there, into a zone of military standoff.” The tact and diplomacy needed to address the Russia-Ukraine-Crimea issue seems to be lacking in NATO’s heavy-handed decision to conduct these military exercises.

The Black Sea is not under the control of any single country — international maritime law dictates that it is part of international waters. NATO would like to prove that it has strong defense ties with Ukraine, but taking such a course of action will probably only escalate tensions with Russia. Such demonstrative, “muscle-flexing” tactics, in an already frustrating situation, will most likely cause Russia to dig its heels in even further. As Zakharova said, these tactics usually end up functioning only as provocations. Just because Crimea is recognized as part of Ukraine, and not under Russian control, does not mean that NATO should test the limits of those boundaries. 

Since the Black Sea is designated as part of international waters, conducting military drills in this area — thereby laying claim to it for a contained period of time — has the potential to be a threat to international law. How can these military drills be performed in the name of peacekeeping, when they could be a threat to the very laws that are meant to keep peace in the international community? What can be interpreted as a tactless strategy on the part of NATO, risks becoming a threat to peace in the region — the part of Europe that is currently vulnerable, fragile, and in the middle of conflict. The drills cannot create or maintain peace in the region when they cause Russia’s military to be on high alert. Thus, while Russia should not incessantly seek control over Crimea, Nato should reconsider their strategy of conducting military drills in the area. Both actors are engaging in steps that undermine the legitimacy of international law.

It is important for the international community to recognize that, frequently, the execution of foreign policy goals is of higher concern than peacekeeping. In order for there to be a sustainable global peace there needs to be a general consensus across countries and international organizations that things will not be done to blatantly increase tensions. Once that agreement is reached, only then can there be more productive cooperation and conversation about how to proceed as an international community.