The United States and other NATO countries participated in an extensive military exercise in the Black Sea region entitled Exercise Sea Breeze 2021. The two-week long exercise is a joint, multi-national event with 5,000 personnel, 30 ships, and 40 aircraft from the U.S., Ukraine, NATO, and partner nations.
Sea Breeze 2021 took place during the June 28 to July 10, 2021 timeframe. It is an exercise that is helping to build capability and interoperability among NATO allies and partners. The Black Sea region has become more complicated in the past several years. Russia’s military presence has been expanding in the region, threatening Western strategic interests. This region is an important factor in protecting NATO’s eastern flank.
Photo: British Batch 2 River-class offshore patrol vessel HMS Trent (P224) participating in Exercise Sea Breeze in the Black Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Claire DuBois, July 1, 2021)
The exercise is cohosted by the U.S. Sixth Fleet and the Ukrainian Navy. The first Sea Breeze exercise took place in 1997 and it has been conducted on an annual basis since then. This year’s exercise, with 31 countries participating, is focused on multiple warfare areas to include amphibious warfare, diving operations, maritime interdiction, anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue operations, land warfare, and special operations integration.
Naval vessels are engaged in the sea phase of the exercise, rehearsing coordinated air, maritime, and land operations to build combined capability. The ships and aircraft are working together in international waters and airspace to refine multi-domain operations. Since Russia’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 the exercise has increased in size.
Participating countries include Albania, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, France, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Morocco, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Senegal, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States.
Photo: U.S. Navy Special Warfare Operator salutes as he jumps out a U.S. Air Force CV-22B assigned to the 352d Special Operations Wing, while conducting military free fall training during exercise Sea Breeze 21 at Ochakiv, Ukraine, June 26, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Nelson)
One of the events taking place during the exercise is the dive and salvage operation to remove a civilian vessel that sunk in 2016 and is now blocking a portion of the Odessa Port pier. U.S., Ukrainian, Canadian, Polish, and Georgian divers have worked on the project which will increase port access and maritime safety.
Elements of the 18 different special operations forces units and dive teams are involved in the exercise to include air, ground, and maritime units. The SOF units conducted training with international counterparts as well as maritime and airborne operations.
Photo: Special operations forces participating in Exercise Sea Breeze 2021 (photo by UK SOF)
Russia, NATO, and the Black Sea
The Black Sea region is a contested area and one that the Russians feel ‘belongs’ to them – the region being a traditional Russian sphere of influence. The Black Sea is important for Russian maritime traffic, commerce, and the projection of military power. Russian maritime dominance in the Black Sea allows it to bottle up Ukrainian ports and to solidify its illegal annexation of Crimea (2014).
The Russians view the exercise as a threatening event to Russian security. A disinformation campaign was launched by Russian to paint the picture that NATO ships entered the territorial waters of Crimea in a provocative manner. In addition, the Russians have conducted their own exercise in the area practicing missile and bombing strikes against target vessels. It has also been monitoring the exercise very closely, with Russian warships closely shadowing NATO warships.
In late June, Russia said it had a confrontation with the British destroyer HMS Defender in waters near Crimea. Moscow claimed that it dropped bombs and fired warning shots to force the warship out of its ‘exclusion zone’. Russian President Putin said that the incident was staged to test Russia’s response. The British discounted the Russian claims and passed the Russian reports as more disinformation. In addition, during the same timeframe, Russian planes conducted mock attacks against a Dutch navy frigate.
Russia intends to monitor NATO warships in the Black Sea and harass those that come near Crimea. In the past (2018) they have blocked the Kerch Strait, preventing maritime traffic from reaching the Sea of Azov – which provides access to the southeastern coast of Ukraine.
NATO warships routinely operate in the Black Sea on patrols for approximately two-thirds of the year. These voyages are consistent with international law. The Black Sea is a critical waterway for maritime commerce. NATO and the U.S. hold the belief that deterring Russian aggression and asserting NATO backing for Ukraine is important to deter future Russian aggression in the region and in Eastern Europe. The Sea Breeze 2021 exercise is a demonstration of U.S. and NATO commitment to security in this region.
Top image from DVIDS, maps from CIA.
Report – Russia, NATO, and Black Sea Security, RAND Corporation, 2020, PDF, 194 pages.
Podcast – Eastern Approaches – the Maritime Dimension of the Russia-Ukraine Confrontation: A View from the Ukrainian Navy, The Jamestown Foundation, April 30, 2021, one hour. This video features retired Ukrainian Admiral Ihor Kabanenko who discusses the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine as well as how the Ukrainian Navy will protect the Ukraine against the Russian Black Sea fleet.