This year’s Sea Breeze 2021 international exercises are the largest since 1997. “To participate in the Sea Breeze 2021 exercises, the Ukrainian Armed Forces and other security and defence forces will provide: 24 ships (boats), 17 aircraft, 12 helicopters, 80 units of armament and military equipment, and 1,500 personnel. In addition, one search and rescue vessel will be involved,” said the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Chief of General Staff, Colonel-General Ruslan Khomchak. In total, 3,000 troops from 32 countries (including not only NATO countries but, for example, Japan) will take part in the maneuvers.
Sea Breeze will cover a large area in the south of Ukraine (Kherson, Mykolayiv, and Odesa regions). The main area will be training areas in the Odesa region and territorial waters of Ukraine. The exercises will last from 28 June to 4 July. The main purpose of these exercises, according to Ruslan Khomchak, is to prepare the interaction of units and staffs of the Ukrainian Navy to participate in multinational operations and practice NATO standards.
Even in the pre-war period, Ukraine’s naval exercises with NATO countries were the target of Russian information attacks. Thus, in 2006, training in Crimea was virtually blocked by local pro-Russian activists. Russia’s stewardship of this process and promotion of anti-NATO hysteria on Russian television were quite open.
This year, the scale of Russia’s provocations reached its apogee. Moscow urges the abandonment of the exercises, claiming they are “aggressive in nature and do not meet the real security objectives of the Black Sea region.” Russian Defence Ministry Spokesperson Igor Konashenkov said that weapons and ammunition were being sent to Ukraine for waging the war in Donbas under the guise of NATO exercises. The Russian serviceman did not provide any evidence, indicating that such statements are part of information operations aimed at undermining Ukraine’s image and its Western partners.
From words, the Russian military quickly turned to aggressive action. On 23 June, an incident occurred in the Black Sea. The Russian side interpreted it as follows: British destroyer HMS Defender (entered Odesa on 18 June) entered Russian territorial waters. As a result, Russian border guards opened warning fire, and the aircraft carried out a precautionary bombing. The British version is completely different: the Royal Navy ship was in the territorial waters of Ukraine, and Russian ships did not open warning fire but conducted exercises using artillery.
The Black Sea region was important theatre of actions for the military back in Soviet times. Collisions between Soviet and NATO ships were recorded here, in particular in 1988.
It is possible that such provocations will become more frequent during the Sea Breeze 2021 exercises. Moscow is unlikely to stop the maneuvers by any acts of intimidation, but some incidents are possible. The Russian Black Sea Fleet and border troops are unlikely to continue to open “warning fire” against NATO ships, and the Ukrainian Navy may act more aggressively, given the incident in the Kerch Strait when the Russians captured 24 Ukrainian sailors. The escalation in the Black Sea by the Russian Federation may decline after Sea Breeze 2021 exercises are over.