(CNSNews.com) – As Russia on Thursday begins war games with Belarus that have heightened Western concerns about Ukraine’s security, the arrival in the Black Sea of another six Russian warships for “naval exercises” is adding to tensions.
On Wednesday it emerged that Russia has scheduled live-fire exercises for large swathes of sea on either side of the Crimean Peninsula, in a move that could affect major Ukrainian ports.
The Ukrainian government’s coastal warnings include alerts that naval “missile and gunnery firing exercises” will be held from February 13-19, making “navigation dangerous” in the designated areas.
“Russia has declared huge parts of the Black and the Azov Sea as ‘closed zones’ due to ‘fire exercises,’” tweeted Sergej Sumlenny, a Berlin-based expert on Eastern Europe. “The current closure has effectively blocked every Ukrainian harbor: Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Skadovsk on the Black Sea – and COMPLETELY blocked Mariupol and Berdyansk on Azov.”
“We don’t want any panic, but this is very similar to preparing for something like the ‘sea blockade’ of Ukrainian ports. About which we’ve been warning for 2 years,” Andrii Klymenko, editor of Black Sea News, a Ukrainian monitoring group, wrote in a Facebook post.
Klymenko said the areas of the Black and Azov seas demarcated for the exercises allow “no corridors for the passage of trade vessels,” a development which he said had not been seen for the past eight years.
While the naval drills appear to be taking place from Sunday through February 19, more than 500 miles to the north the Russia-Belarus joint military exercises named Union Resolve 2022 are due to kick off on Thursday and run through February 20.
The reported presence of more than 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s eastern borders has sparked one of the most serious disputes between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War. Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014 and supports separatists in the eastern Ukraine Donbass region, denies any intention to further invade the country.
Russia’s defense ministry reported on Tuesday that six large landing ships had entered or were shortly to enter the Black Sea through Turkey’s Bosphorus strait, to conduct exercises.
It did not provide details of the planned Black Sea exercises, other than to say they were part of a broader series of exercises in January and February being held in all Russian Navy areas of responsibility, from the Atlantic to the western Pacific, and from the Mediterranean to the waters of the Arctic north of Russia, and involving a total of more than 140 warships and support vessels.
“The main focus of the exercises is to work out the actions of the navy and aerospace forces to protect Russian national interests in the world ocean, as well as to counter military threats to the Russian Federation from sea and ocean directions,” the ministry said.
The amphibious landing ships heading into the Black Sea come from Russia’s Baltic and Northern fleets. Five of the six are Ropucha-class ships, each capable of landing battle tanks, armored vehicles, and some 300 soldiers along shorelines.
Ropucha-class vessels were used to land equipment and personnel in Georgia during Russia’s 2008 war.
The sixth large landing ship, the Pyotr Morgunov, is a more modern and larger vessel, with similar capabilities to land tanks, armed personnel carriers, and around 300 Marines.
Three of the ships were photographed making their way through the Bosphorus near Istanbul on Wednesday night local time. The other three, according to the defense ministry, were en route to the Bosphorus from the southwest.
According to Black Sea News, the Russian Navy this month has deployed 17 major warships, including seven missile ships, in the Black Sea – more than twice the number that were in the strategic waterway in December, when it had eight major warships, including five missile ships.
Earlier this week Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said he had no updates about U.S. Navy movements in the Black Sea, but confirmed that the Harry S. Truman carrier strike group was in the Mediterranean, operating with the French carrier, Charles de Gaulle.
Last month it was reported that Truman and its strike group had been placed under NATO operational command, for “the first time since the Cold War.”
After French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, Macron said Putin had given an assurance he would not further escalate the situation around Ukraine.
A Kremlin spokesman later disputed that Putin and Macron had reached any such “deal.”
Aside from the deployment of more Russian warships to the Black Sea, the U.S. has seen no indication that Moscow is moving to de-escalate around Ukraine.
“We have continued to see, even over the last 24 hours, additional capabilities flow from elsewhere in Russia to that border with Ukraine and in Belarus,” Kirby said at a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday.
“The numbers continue to grow,’ he said. “We maintain that he's north of 100,000 [troops], for sure, and he continues to add to that capability. We also see indications that additional battalion tactical groups are on their way.”
Kirby said Putin was adding to his options every day.
“Every day he adds to his capabilities. Every day he continues to destabilize what is already a very tense situation.”
Kirby said the Russian president could easily de-escalate “by moving these forces back home, and by committing to a diplomatic path forward.”