ABOARD U.S. NAVY DESTROYER ROSS IN THE BLACK SEA — On the morning of July 2, following live-fire drills between the United States and Ukraine, a Russian ship made unexpected radio contact with the American destroyer Ross.

Leave this location, the Russians told the crew. The Russian Navy is conducting an exercise here.

The Americans were in the Black Sea for an exercise of their own, Sea Breeze 21, hosted by Ukraine and the U.S. each year since 1997 alongside international partners and allies. For the past two days, Ukrainian fast attack craft had zipped around the destroyer and fighter jets had buzzed overhead. The Navy had fired hundreds of rounds from its machine guns. That action was part of pre-planned drills.

But all the while, four Russian warships were a constant presence — sometimes visible while loitering four or five miles away, sometimes matching Ross’s course and speed just a mile and a half away.

Now, after being asked to leave, the officers on the bridge of the Ross were firm. We’re conducting an international exercise in international waters, they replied. We have the right to be here, too.

The exchange ended there.

But no fewer than three times that same morning, Ross’ leadership called teams to the deck after unidentified aircraft — presumed Russian jets and maritime patrol aircraft — were picked up on the ship’s radar. Those group, known as SNOOPIE teams, are on standby to photograph and otherwise document any interactions between the ship and potentially hostile actors. And while they didn’t see any action that day, with the aircraft never coming into visual range, leaders were on alert enough to keep them nearby.

This is what great power competition looks like in action in 2021. Though U.S. defense leaders talk about the idea of great power competition, they often do so in the future tense — and often about a conflict that would start in the South China Sea. But the U.S. Navy’s regional leaders say great power competition is already taking place in Europe and there’s a race underway to assemble a strong enough coalition of allies and partners to keep day-to-day tensions with Russia at a simmer, instead of boiling over into an all-out conflict. Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than the Black Sea.

Vice Adm. Gene Black, head of U.S. 6th Fleet Command, said a great power competition in Europe means “operating in international waters, where we want, when we want. Sometimes we attract unwanted attention; that’s part of the seascape, and we deal with it.”

Cmdr. John D. John, the Ross’ commanding officer, remained unflappable in his message throughout three days at sea with a constant Russian presence.

“As you can see, we’re operating in international waters with our partners. We’ve demonstrated this is what our intention is. We expect to continue to operate in international waters with our global partners for a Partnership for Peace in the Black Sea,” he told Navy Times July 2 amid the live-fire drills and increased Russian activity around the destroyer.

“They’re doing their thing; we’re doing our thing. It’s great.”

Still, he acknowledged, current events weighed on him as he operated in close vicinity to the Russians.

“When we get an amazing opportunity to pull into a place like Ukraine and we get the opportunity to meet Ukrainian marines who just returned from the frontline — who are defending their homeland, who are protecting their families and their way of life, and we’re here to stand side by side to do that — it motivates us to be able to support what they’re doing because ultimately we’re inextricably linked by the sea,” he said. “Our safety, security and prosperity are all linked together. … We’re doing it for the world.”

Sea Breeze is trumpeted as an exercise with a focus on interoperability between friends. But it also intends to send a message to Russia that these friends can fall in line as part of a NATO task group if called upon to respond to a crisis.

“It matters for all of us to be together and remain committed to each other,” John added.

Longstanding tension

Russia’s presence is evident in other bodies of water — its submarines lurk in the Mediterranean and the high north, its ships and aircraft patrol the Baltic Sea — but the Black Sea is different. Russia attacked one Black Sea neighbor, Georgia, in 2008. In 2014, it annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, a move NATO still doesn’t recognize but that Russia has used to vastly expand its claims on waters and undersea gas and oil in the Black Sea.

This year was more tense than most at Sea Breeze. Though the exercise had long been planned, and exercise leaders attributed the high turnout to its being one of the first major international exercises after COVID-19 restrictions were eased, Russian actions have cast the exercise in a new light.

Earlier in the year, Russia flowed more than 100,000 troops and their gear into Crimea and its western border with Ukraine, claiming the move was for a military exercise but never fully removing the heavy weaponry after the exercise ended. Just ahead of the Sea Breeze 21 kickoff, Russia claimed it fired upon the British warship Defender — though the U.K. government disputed that claim — after the warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Crimea in what Russia calls its territorial waters and the U.K. calls Ukrainian territorial waters. Still, that incident in the Black Sea was on the minds of many during Sea Breeze.

“We came out of the Russian buildup along the Eastern Ukraine border and in Crimea with a newfound sense of unity among allies,” Laura Cooper, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia told Navy Times before Sea Breeze began.

Cooper said the Pentagon watched the Russian military buildup in the spring.

“There was a period of incredibly close consultation between the U.S. and a number of NATO allies, and within the alliance as a whole, to better understand what Russia might be up to, what they might do and what measures we might need to take in support of Ukraine,” Cooper said.

“It resulted in a common picture. We and the Ukrainians called upon Russia to explain what they were doing: We asked them to report at the OSC, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, through established procedures, whereby nations declare when they are going to do an exercise or have made a major military moves.

“Russia did not cooperate. Russia did not offer information that explained what they were doing. So this only increased, I think, unity and resolve on our part.”

Cooper added that the tension isn’t over yet. “Russia gave a somewhat inexplicable set of statements about their buildup alongside Ukraine’s eastern border that related to exercise activity. And we are watching closely as we see Russia embarking on its next cycle of exercise activity, with exercises in the fall.”

This sense of being on alert doesn’t change how ships in the region act, but it adds a layer of importance to their missions and their presence.

Black, the 6th Fleet commander, said the Black Sea “is international waters and we support the ability of every nation to operate in international waters — so free flow of maritime commerce — and no nation has the right to impinge on that. In the case of Sea Breeze and Ukraine, we support their territorial integrity and their sovereignty, and that’s part of why we’re operating here in the Black Sea.”

He warned that, being a constrained body of water, “with shallow water, closer to shores, and less reaction time,” the forward-deployed ships in Europe and those passing through 6th Fleet need to be particularly vigilant when operating in the Black Sea.

Ross’s command master chief, Command Master Chief Petty Officer Rodolfo Lopez Jr., told reporters that, on one hand, the Navy trains to operate in all manner of conditions. What has changed over his 24 years in the Navy — and was especially noticeable while serving on a Rota, Spain-based destroyer in the Forward-Deployed Naval Force-Europe fleet — is the frequency and close proximity of interactions with Russians.

“It does feel different. I mean, certainly, I’ve very rarely been on a ship where we’re being tailed by someone like the Russians. But again, our interactions have been professional, and our mission stays the same. We’re out here just defending the freedom of navigation on international waters, and a lot of what the Navy does is that presence ops, so that hasn’t changed. … It is a little bit different out here, having them around as often as they are, but that’s what we’re out here to do,” Lopez said.

Cmdr. Dan Marzluff, who served as the Black Sea and East Mediterranean deputy division lead at U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa through the end of Sea Breeze, said the timing of the Russian military buildup, the standoff with the British ship and the large turnout at Sea Breeze caught the world’s attention in a way that little else could.

“We tend to forget that [Ukraine is] still at war; they’ve been at war since 2014, and it’s the only active fight in terms of an active conflict on the European continent — and I think that’s significant, and it’s easy to forget that,” he said.

“[President Volodymyr Zelensky] himself, he made a trip out to the frontlines around the April timeframe when there was that huge Russian buildup out there in Donbas, and I think he shined a light on something that people would probably rather forget. It’s very much a war of attrition out there, unfortunately, and the ceasefire has been broken numerous times, multiple times daily, and there’s a bit of a stalemate right now with regard to a diplomatic angle to resolve the conflict. So, him going out there and essentially touring what’s modern-day trench warfare is significant, and I think the international community recognized that. I think an exercise like this draws attention. … Ukraine is still struggling.”

Russia’s response to British ship Defender, in particular, is perceived “in such a way that people recognize what Russia’s doing, again, for what it is, and they want to do something to support Ukraine.”

Why Sea Breeze Matters

Sea Breeze, on its face, is about interoperability. Ukraine is building up its navy after its fleet was decimated in 2014, and its sailors need to learn how to use the new gear they’re receiving — and, importantly, how to use it alongside U.S. and NATO partners, as part of an integrated task group tapped into a common maritime picture.

Many of the drills Ross participated in were fairly basic: maneuvering a five-ship group in tight formations; practicing especially close maneuvers such as refueling and towing; rehearsing radio communication with proper NATO channels and terminology.

But what the exercise hopes to convey is that Ukraine can fall in line under a bigger naval force if it were attacked.

“This year there’s a great focus on interoperability, linking together information to have a shared situational awareness for all the ships that are involved,” Capt. Kyle Gantt, the deputy commander of Destroyer Squadron 60 and Task Force 65 in 6th Fleet who commanded the maritime component of Sea Breeze 21, told Navy Times on the first day of the exercise. “We are focused on fundamentals to ensure that, when we need to, we can bring together a force of allies and partners that can, at a moment’s notice, aggregate into … a much more capable force than any nation or individual ship can deliver on their own.”

Though Russia may be the only actor in the region that needs to hear that message, Gantt said the exercise wasn’t meant to be provocative.

“The things that we’re doing … they are not aggressive things. These are things that we ensure global access, that we are able to operate nation to nation, ship to ship at sea to deliver a force that is more capable than the individuals. And those are not provocative; those are the things that we would do as a matter of course, building relationships between allies, building relationships with partners, and we continue to do that really no matter what the external actors are doing.”

None of the plans for the exercise changed based on recent Russian military movements, he said, and no countries backed out due to the increased tension in the region.

Just one day before Ross entered the Black Sea for Sea Breeze, the Virginia-based destroyer Laboon departed the body of water, Gantt said.

“The message is consistency. The message is: This is not provocative. The message is: This is an international waterspace and every nation — whether it’s Ukraine, the United States, Russia —every nation has a right to operate in international waters without being threatened.

“One of the ways you get there is you continue to demonstrate that over and over — and so the United States’ ability to partner with our allies in the Black Sea and partners in the Black Sea continually builds that and reinforces that message that the Black Sea is international commons that is open and accessible to all nations.”

John, who served as the Ross commanding officer through the end of the patrol before turning over command of the ship, said this ties directly into the U.S. Navy preparing for great power competition in 6th Fleet.

“There are two ways of looking at this. The first way is to look at the things that we can do internally with the systems that we have to be able to add, to match or exceed what great power competition will present to us. The other piece to this is the ability to build friendships, to build that network of like-minded nations who believe that we’re all better and stronger and safer together than we are by ourselves. So, twofold with regard to great power competition is our ability to exercise our systems and also to integrate everybody else’s into the collective whole.”

And in that way, having an exercise based around interoperability made all the sense in the world.

Preparing for the future

The operating environment is changing, a fact made obvious during Sea Breeze by a string of disinformation attempts, where an actor — the Navy either didn’t know or didn’t disclose who — made a handful of NATO ships appear on automatic identification system trackers to be in the Crimean waters that Russia claims. This happened to Defender and a warship from the Netherlands ahead of the exercise, to Ross the night before it set sail for the first at-sea period of Sea Breeze, and to an Italian warship later that week.

John said the attempt to mischaracterize his ship’s location didn’t change the destroyer’s actions in any way.

“What’s most important for us is that we expect to operate in accordance with international law and maritime regulations and also operate with due regard for safety. As long as we do those things, we shouldn’t have to worry about what other people may or may not be saying about us.”

Black, too, said the incident amplified the message he was trying to send about peaceful coexistence in international waters in the Black Sea.

“We’re transparent, we support the sovereignty of Ukraine, their territorial integrity, and we’re here operating with 31 other nations in a wide-open manner. We’re telling the world what we’re doing, and what other nations choose to do speaks for itself.”

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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