USS Donald Cook, a destroyer equipped with the powerful Aegis missile defense system, has crossed through the Bosphorus and entered the Black Sea, with Russia claiming that NATO is assembling a battle fleet in the region.
Earlier, the US Defense Department said the ship’s mission was “to reassure NATO allies and Black Sea partners” following the events in Ukraine.
“It demonstrates our commitment to our … allies to enhance security, readiness and capabilities,” spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said in a statement.
But sources in the Russian military believe the move is part of a systematic build-up of naval forces.
“What we are seeing is that for the first time since 2008, NATO is creating a naval battle group outside the Russian borders,” a source told Interfax news agency, citing the entry of French reconnaissance ship Dupuy de Lome and destroyer Dupleix – both expected within the next week.
The French rescue vessel Alize has been inside the Black Sea basin since late last month.
“The purpose of this is to provide moral support for the regime in Kiev, but also as a demonstration of power to make Russia come to heel. But the ship will also collect information on Russian military activity in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border,” the source said.
Russia’s Black Sea fleet is stationed in Sevastopol in Crimea, which was incorporated into Russia following a referendum last month.
NATO also believes that Moscow is massing troops on its border with eastern Ukraine, which has experienced uprisings by pro-Russian activists calling for secession from Kiev. On Thursday, NATO released satellite shots of Russian border bases heaving with troops and equipment, though Moscow has said that the shots are from last year, and in any case, show no unusual activity.
USS Donald Cook had already aroused the anger of Moscow when it arrived in Europe earlier this year, as it carries the sophisticated Aegis weapons and radar system and will form a key part of NATO’s missile defense shield in Europe. Moscow has vehemently opposed the project, saying it is a direct security threat and alters the nuclear balance of power in the region.
Moscow has said that NATO naval movements since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis at the end of last year have violated the Montreux Convention on naval movements in the Black Sea.
According to the treaty, warships from non-Black Sea states can only stay in the basin for up to 21 days consecutively. USS Taylor spent 11 more than that in the region in February and March.
On Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry expressed “bemusement” over the supposed violations.
“Turkey [which administers the treaty] did not inform us about the overstay. We have expressed our concern to the Turkish and US side in a verbal note,” said a statement on the ministry website.
But even if Washington complies with the terms of the treaty, it is unlikely to reduce its military presence beyond the Bosphorus.
“Since February, whenever one US ship leaves the Black Sea, one or more replace it. It is possible that this rotation will be kept up for ships operating the Aegis system,” the Russian military source said.