Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday expressed concern about NATO drills in the Black Sea.
In an interview with Russia 24 news channel, President Putin said the US-led alliance’s “unscheduled” maneuvers pose “a grave challenge” for Russia.
“Indeed, the United States and their NATO allies are presently conducting an unscheduled, and I want to stress that it is unscheduled drill in the Black Sea,” the head of the country stressed.
“They deployed a powerful naval group and they are also using the air force in the drill, including strategic aviation. [...] They use the B-51, which are pretty old aircraft, but it is not the carriers that matter. The point is that they have strategic combat weapons onboard, which is a grave challenge for us.”
President Putin’s statement comes amid NATO and Ukraine’s joint naval drills in the Black Sea, which involve seven vessels, of which two belong to Ukraine. The exercises also involve command ship USS Mount Whitney and Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Porter, belonging to the US Sixth Fleet.
According to a tweet published on Saturday by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, military exercises are a key component of an integrated containment strategy. In turn, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu believes that US and NATO guided-missile ships are attempting to “test” local Russian forces in the Black Sea region.
In Saturday’s interview, President Putin said the defense ministry suggested holding an unscheduled drill in the area of the Black Sea. Still, the president believes that “it is inexpedient” and “there is no need to aggravate the situation there even further.”
For Russia, the Black Sea is of particular importance for economic and geostrategic reasons. Russia’s Black Sea ports have always served its economic interests as its only warm-water ports. The control of the Black Sea also means total control over the Sea of Azov, a small body of water surrounded by Russia and Ukraine and connected to the Black Sea by the Kerch Strait. In addition, the region contains oil and gas resources, key energy pipelines, shipping lanes, and fiber-optic cables.
The naval drills come amid years of rising tensions between Russia and the US-led alliance. NATO suspended relations with Russia after the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, while Moscow views the alliance’s eastward expansion as a threat to national security.
A recent report by Bloomberg news wire, which mentioned that a buildup of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border might be weighing a potential invasion of Ukraine, had only escalated tensions between the parties. US officials had reportedly briefed EU counterparts on their concerns over a possible military operation.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov categorically refuted speculations of this kind, calling Western media reports a “hollow and unfounded attempt to incite tensions.”
“Russia doesn’t threaten anyone. The movement of troops on our territory shouldn’t be a cause for anyone’s concern,” Peskov told journalists on Friday.
Last week, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry claimed that about 90,000 Russian troops were stationed not far from the border with Ukraine.
Ukraine and Russia, the two post-Soviet countries, have been at odds since the 2014 crisis in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions. Ukraine accuses Russia of annexing the Crimean region and backing anti-government separatist riots in the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. The crisis eventually destabilized the Donbas region of Ukraine.
While Kyiv and the West have accused Russia of supporting the separatist regimes in Donetsk and Lugansk with weapons and troops, Moscow has repeatedly denied those claims. Despite a ceasefire that halted full-scale war in 2015, the deadly skirmishes never ceased. The ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine has so far claimed the lives of some 14,000 people and left as many as 40,000 wounded, according to Kyiv’s estimates.