A U.S. Navy destroyer has been dispatched to the Black Sea for naval exercises with Ukrainian warships in a show of “solidarity” following an exchange of fire with a Russian ship that infuriated an admiral.
“The whole episode in the Sea of Azov was extremely bothersome to me,” said Navy Adm. James Foggo, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa, in an interview with reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last weekend.
Reports noted that Russian ships opened fire on three Ukrainian navy vessels as they tried to transit the Kerch Strait, which is a narrow waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. The Russians also arrested Ukrainian sailors after the incident last November.
It was the first public act of hostility by Russian forces against the Ukrainians since 2014 when “little green men” — disguised Russian troops — invaded Crimea and annexed the enclave for Moscow. Russia has used its control of land on both sides of the waterway to cut off access to a number of vital Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, the Washington Examiner reported.
“We’re showing solidarity,” Foggo said, referencing the deployment of the USS Donald Cook (above) to the region from its homeport at Naval Station Rota, Spain.
Moscow says the three Ukrainian vessels were captured as they attempted to force their way through the strait in an unsafe manner.
“They were apprehended — even though some people have illusions about Crimea — they were apprehended at the place which was Russian territorial waters even before the referendum,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Saturday during the security conference, referencing the vote that Russia claims is underlying the basis for its claim to sovereignty over the Crimean side of the strait.
But that’s a false statement, U.S. officials and NATO member states noted. They say that the Ukrainian ships were taken in the Black Sea, on the international side of the Kerch Strait, making Moscow’s action illegal under international maritime law.
Foggo openly condemned the Russian action and jailing of 24 Ukrainian sailors on charges they illegally crossed a Russian border.
“Let me tell you, that irritates me to no end,” Foggo told reporters.
“They are uniformed Ukrainian sailors and officers and chiefs. They’re not criminals, and they are being charged under a criminal code,” he added.
“They should be protected under the Geneva Convention, which is why the United States and other NATO allies have come to the table and said ‘Release them immediately,’ and they still continue to hold them. That is just absolutely wrong, and it is not the kind of behavior that you would expect from a major power — which Russia wants to be.”
Foggo noted that Russian vessels track U.S. and NATO warships in the Black Sea region but they aren’t a match for American firepower.
“Let’s face it, the Russian carrier Kuznetsov doesn’t even come close to the Ford-class carrier or the Nimitz –class carrier, and the surface navy is not an equivalent match for either the United States Navy or [other] NATO navies in the world,” Foggo said.