The latest encounters came amid heightened military activity in the region, but such interactions are not uncommon in the Black Sea, which has remained tense since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
“NATO allies and partners operating in that area by themselves are constantly shadowed by Russian vessels, and by and large, those interactions are safe and professional, although they’re meant to intimidate,” Adm. Robert Burke, commander of US Navy Forces in Europe and Africa, said at a US Navy Memorial event.
“When a strike aircraft overflies a destroyer at 100 feet altitude and right over top, our [commanding officers] are making a judgment call whether that strike fighter is on an attack profile or not,” Burke added. “It could be argued that they’re baiting us into shooting first. We’re not going to do that first without provocation, but I’m also not going to ask my commanding officers to take the first shot on the chin.”
Russian and NATO forces frequently operate in close proximity. Russia regularly reports intercepts of NATO aircraft flying near Russian borders. NATO militaries often intercept Russian aircraft flying near their borders.
US officials have on multiple occasions criticized Russia for what they call “unsafe and unprofessional” intercepts of US aircraft and warships in the seas around Europe. Those include low-altitude flights over US warships, which are especially risky because of uncertainty about intent and the potential for accidents.
In the past, Russian aircraft would fly without weapons in a configuration called “wings clean,” Burke’s predecessor, now-retired Adm. James Foggo, said in 2019.
“In the interactions and the intercepts I see today, they’re coming out ‘wings dirty,’ or they have weapons on board,” Foggo said at the time. “That’s another bit of the calculus that goes in the commanding officer’s mind on … what is the intent of that pilot.”
In his remarks this month, Burke said those close encounters have “tactical risk” that “could turn into a strategic issue.”
“That’s a big concern with this increasing aggressiveness. So we’ll have to watch that very closely,” Burke added.
Russian and NATO forces have continued to train in the Black Sea since Sea Breeze ended on July 10. NATO navies worked on interoperability and readiness, while Russian aircraft and coastal-defense units practiced attacking enemy forces.
That Russian action, including military buildups and restricting access to international waters, ultimately “results in some nations avoiding going to those areas, which is exactly the behavior change that the Russians are seeking,” Burke said.
Russia is “not 10 feet tall” and its leaders “understand and respect” NATO capabilities, but it has “heavily modernized” its military, particularly its submarines, and learned from watching the US fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, Burke said.
“The Russian government is still very much an existential threat to the United States,” Burke said. “I think is as much of a threat today as the Soviet Union was in a Cold War.”
Close encounters between Russia’s military and US and European forces in June were signals from Moscow to its rivals about its capabilities and how it was willing to use them, experts said this month.
On June 23, Russian combat aircraft flew over the British destroyer HMS Defender as it conducted an “innocent passage” near Crimea.
Russia claimed it fired warning shots and dropped bombs near the warship, which the UK denied, though the British defense minister said Russian jets performed maneuvers that were “neither safe nor professional.”
In the same area a day later, Russian jets repeatedly flew close to Dutch frigate HNLMS Eversten while conducting mock attacks, creating what the Dutch Defense Ministry called “a dangerous situation.”
Eversten’s commander said it was in international waters and that the Russian actions were “irresponsible and unsafe.”
Those incidents have “a larger message,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.
“Moscow is increasingly willing and able to enforce what it sees as territorial and operational red lines, and Crimea and the Black Sea are a major focus of attention,” Rojansky told Insider.
Tensions remain high after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, and Moscow has sought to “set the precedent” that it controls its territorial claims there, Rojansky said, citing the 2018 Kerch Strait incident.
“All this traces back to Putin’s words in March 2014, when he justified the Russian seizure of Crimea as being about keeping NATO out,” Rojansky added.
Russia’s military drilled around Crimea throughout the end of June and early July, focusing on attacking the ships of “a notional enemy.” The US- and Ukrainian-led exercise Sea Breeze also kicked off in late June and was the largest iteration in its 21-year history, with 32 countries participating.
Moscow described Sea Breeze as “openly anti-Russian,” but US and NATO officials stressed that it was defensive in nature and done in accordance with international law.
“It’s one of the most robust Sea Breeze exercises we’ve conducted to date, and we’re proud of that,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said July 6.
The Black Sea incidents also overlapped with Russian and British-led exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailing with US F-35B fighter jets aboard, conducted exercises and combat operations against ISIS during the final days of June.
US and British jets found themselves in a “cat-and-mouse” game with Russia, which angled to keep an eye on them as Russian warships and aircraft conducted reconnaissance and air-defense drills.
Their proximity was not a coincidence, according to Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA.
Russia has deployed more forces to its improved military facilities in Syria, while the UK is putting HMS Queen Elizabeth, its newest carrier, through real-world testing during its maiden deployment.
“A force-on-force interaction that’s not planned is probably one the best ways to generate these kind of lessons and experience for the Royal Navy,” Kofman said on a recent podcast, adding that Russia used “the British deployment as an opportunity to essentially … train strike missions against NATO ships.”
‘Ready and present’
Mid-June also saw a major Russian exercise in the central Pacific Ocean, with warships and aircraft conducting what Russian officials called their largest exercise there since the Cold War.
Much of their activity was several hundred miles from Hawaii, but US officials said some Russian ships came within 30 nautical miles of the islands.
Russian long-range-bomber operations during the exercise twice prompted US F-22 fighters to scramble for potential intercepts, though US officials said Russian aircraft never came close to Hawaii. (US and Russian aircraft regularly intercept each other over the Pacific.)
The exercise was “unprecedented” in its size and its distance from Russia, according to Carl Shuster, a retired US Navy captain who was director of operations at US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in the 1990s.
“The Soviet Navy never conducted exercises this close to the Hawaiian Islands,” Shuster told Insider.
“The Russian political statement was ‘we’ve returned as a Pacific maritime power and can reach your territory just as you are reaching ours in the Black Sea,'” Shuster added. “The target audience of course was the Russian people and the American leadership.”
The Pacific exercise – which took place around the Biden-Putin summit in Switzerland – was also a demonstration of military capability, featuring what Moscow called “the tasks of detecting, countering and delivering missile strikes against an aircraft carrier strike group.”
The ships involved included guided-missile cruiser Varyag, Russia’s Pacific Fleet flagship, and destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, which carries Kalibr missiles, a weapon that worries US commanders and “presented the potential military threat that gave the message credibility,” Shuster said.
US military forces “remain ready and present in the Indo-Pacific,” Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesman, told Insider, calling it the US’s “priority theater.”
The Russian warships that conducted the Pacific exercise returned to port earlier this month, but encounters between Russian and NATO forces in the Black Sea and the Pacific have continued. Russian officials continue to call the HMS Defender incident a “provocation” and warn about future run-ins.
“Russia will continue to foil such actions using the harshest methods, regardless of the nationality of the violator,” Mikhail Popov, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said this week.
In early May, the US Special Operations Europe (SOCEUR) conducted its largest annual exercise in conjunction with a smaller one, training with special-operations units from several NATO member and partner countries.
Trojan Footprint 21 and Black Swan 21 are especially pertinent as tensions with Russia in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are still simmering.
SOCEUR planned both exercises to happen at the same time to simulate a full-blown conflict with Russia ranging from the Baltic states and Scandinavia south to Ukraine and the Black Sea region.
US Navy SEALs, Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCCs), Green Berets, and Air Commandos were joined in the exercise by special operators from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Georgia, Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Spain, Ukraine, and the UK.
The realistic exercises took place in Romania and across Eastern Europe.
Besides testing the interoperability of different national special-operations units in skill-sets such as close-air support, close-quarters battler, and visit, board, search, and seizure, the two exercises, particularly Trojan Footprint, focused on how conventional and special-operations units would work together in a major conflict with Russia.
Integration between conventional and special-operations troops is essential in a near-peer conflict environment.
Navy SEALs vs. Russia
In a potential conflict with Russia, Naval Special Warfare units would be extremely valuable for several reasons.
Since the annexation of the peninsula, the Russian military has bolstered its presence in the region, making it a seemingly impenetrable fortress guarding Moscow’s southern flank both from land and air.
In addition to potent radar systems that can track surface vessels hundreds of miles out, Russia has deployed several batteries of the formidable S-400 anti-aircraft system – the same one that caused Turkey to be kicked out of the F-35 program – to Crimea.
Indeed, Moscow has turned the peninsula into a prime example of the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) concept, which aims to defeat US air and naval supremacy by threatening ships and aircraft with missiles and other weapons and thus preventing them from getting within range.
Crimea, however, would be an ideal environment for Naval Special Warfare operations.
SEAL Teams can conduct over-the-beach raids and ambushes, maritime and land special reconnaissance, and underwater special operations, such as placing sensors on the ocean or limpet mines on enemy vessels.
Russian radar installations and A2/AD batteries and command-and-control systems would be a logical target for SEAL platoons.
But SEALs aren’t the only Naval Special Warfare element that could play an important role in a potential conflict with Russia.
An unknown gem
Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) are one of the smallest special-operations in the US Special Operations Command.
With less than 1,000 commandos – out of about 70,000 special operators in the entire US military – Special Boat Teams specialize in maritime direct-action, special reconnaissance, and infiltration/exfiltration of other special-operations units.
“SWCCs are a perfect fit for a near-peer contingency. We’re such a small community people tend to underestimate our capabilities. But we bring so much to the table. We’re more than the ‘boat guys’ who transport SEALs on target. We can conduct operations unilaterally in both an open-sea and riverine environment,” an active-duty SWCC operator, who was granted anonymity to speak about the unit’s role, told Insider.
There are three Special Boat Teams, two focusing on blue-water, or ocean/sea, operations and one on brown-water, or riverine, operations.
They operate several special-operations platforms, including the Combatant Craft Assault (CCA), Combatant Craft Medium (CCM), Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH), which are all geared toward littoral and open-sea operations, and the Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R), which is essentially a gun platform designed for riverine operations.
“But perhaps our greatest asset is our stealth and firepower. Done correctly, the enemy would never know we were there, or they would be too dead to care,” the SWCC operator added.
Besides clandestinely transporting SEALs to Russian installations in Crimea, SWCCs can be very effective in rivers with the SOC-R. Riverine operations offer some great advantages, namely, speed, firepower, and stealth.
During Black Swan 21, SWCCs honed their riverine skills on the Danube River, Europe’s second-largest, which flows from Germany to the Black Sea and passes through 10 countries.
US special-operations units do have some real-world experience on riverine environments and riverine operations.
During counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, Navy SEALs and Rangers sometimes used rivers to their advantage when the improvised explosive device (IED) threat made roads too dangerous.
In a number of operations, SWCCs transported a SEAL or Ranger ground force close to a target by river, where insurgents wouldn’t be waiting for them, to great success as the insurgents were caught unawares.
In the 2012 movie “Act of Valor,” which was sponsored by Naval Special Warfare Command and starred active-duty SEAL and SWCC operators, showcased the utility and advantages of riverine operations during a fictional hostage-rescue scenario.
In the movie, SWCCs clandestinely insert a SEAL squad that rescues the hostage from the terrorist base – located very conveniently right next to a river – and extracts them under fire.
Despite its fictional aspects, the movie shows how riverine special-operations capability can be used to strike very deep behind enemy lines, where an enemy wouldn’t expect it and thus would be less prepared.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
Air Force General Tod Wolters, the top US general in Europe, on Thursday said there’s a “low to medium” risk that Russia invades Ukraine in the next few weeks, per Defense News.
Wolters, the head of US European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, during a House Armed Services Committee said that NATO was ready to respond to Russian aggression if necessary.
“We deter, and, if deterrence fails, we’re prepared to respond to aggression with the full weight of the transatlantic alliance,” Wolters said, also stating that the likelihood of a Russian invasion will “start to wane” based on “the trend that I see right now.” The general did not provide further details or intelligence behind this assessment.
Roughly 80,000 Russian troops have amassed in Crimea and along the eastern border of Ukraine, which has already been fighting a war against Kremlin-backed separatists in the Donbass region for over half a decade, raising alarm bells across Europe and in Washington.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday called on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s border.
“NATO stands with Ukraine,” he said. “Russia must end this military buildup in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday warned Russia of “consequences” if it “acts recklessly or aggressively.”
Blinken, who traveled to Brussels this week for talks with Ukraine’s foreign minister and NATO leaders, on Tuesday said that the US “stands firmly behind the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
“And that’s particularly important at a time when we’re seeing, unfortunately, Russia take very provocative action when it comes to Ukraine,” Blinken added.
“The President voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions,” the White House said in a statement.
US-Russia relations have hit a historically low point in recent years, particularly since Putin’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the contentious dynamic has persisted with Biden at the helm.
The Biden administration on Thursday issued new sanctions against over 30 Russian entities over Moscow’s election interference as well as Russia’s role in the SolarWinds cyberattack. Additionally, the US expelled 10 Russian diplomats.
Russia has denied any role in the hack and rejected allegations of election interference.
Putin’s success augmented “the belief among some that bigger nations can bully smaller ones to get their way,” as US President Barack Obama put it at the time. Given Crimea’s location in a small country – and the complex, often ethnically tinged territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia – the world was not willing to fight for it.
History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes; today, a Crimea-like scenario could easily unfold in the South China Sea. In this case, China would be the aggressor, while Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands, which Beijing also claims, are the potential targets.
Also known as the Pratas Islands, they have no permanent inhabitants, but they host a detachment of some 500 Taiwanese marines, and are also visited by fishers and researchers. Although the Dongsha are located about 275 miles from Kaohsiung, the municipality in southern Taiwan that administers them, they lie just 170 miles from Hong Kong and are within the city’s airspace, putting them in easy reach of the People’s Liberation Army.
In recent years, Beijing has become more aggressive in the South China Sea, where it maintains expansive maritime claims that are not recognized under international law.
On countless occasions, China’s fleet has harassed, intimidated or even rammed into other countries’ ships in this strategic waterway – including naval vessels, fishing trawlers and oil exploration rigs. The PLA has also built military installations atop reefs and rock formations in the disputed Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands.
But unlike those features, which are the subject of numerous overlapping claims and international legal disputes, the status of the Dongsha Islands is a bilateral row between China and Taiwan. This makes it easier for China to attempt a unilateral change to the status quo.
Indeed, throughout 2020 and into 2021, Beijing has stepped up the pace of its military exercises near the Dongsha, prompting Taipei to respond with live-fire drills on the islands, including one earlier this month. As his administration looks to build closer ties with Taiwan, President Joe Biden would be wise to pay close attention to this potential flashpoint.
The Dongsha Islands have long been seen as strategically significant in China, which could use them to control and hinder foreign access to the Bashi Channel, a waterway between Taiwan and the Philippines that Chinese nuclear submarines use to access the Western Pacific Ocean.
Chinese writers and scholars have in recent years made Beijing’s position plain: The Dongsha Islands are necessary to both China’s eventual unification with Taiwan and for Beijing’s broader geopolitical interests.
Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, put it simply, writing in a recent article for the state tabloid Global Times that the “Dongsha Islands’ location is strategically important as it links the South China Sea and the West Pacific, and if the Taiwan authority lets US military forces deploy facilities in the islands, it would be a major threat to the PLA and the mainland’s security.”
For reasons that remain unclear, though, the exercise was apparently canceled at the last minute. Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defense University of the PLA, was quoted by the Global Times as denying that the drills were ever planned. Still, China’s designs for these islands remain clear.
In fact, there is already precedent for this. In October 2020, the Hong Kong government prevented a Taiwanese aircraft from using its airspace to fly to the islands, reportedly due to nearby PLA missile drills. Less than a week later, a senior Taiwanese military officer, Lt. Gen. Li Tingsheng, made a trip to the islands with a delegation of coast guard personnel, sending a clear message of defiance to Beijing.
However, the Dongsha Islands’ presence in Chinese airspace makes fortifying them and maintaining effective control over the territory a much harder and more expensive task for Taiwan. Here, the parallel to Russia’s takeover of Crimea is disturbingly clear, given that the peninsula’s geography – almost completely surrounded by the Black Sea – and proximity to Russia made it difficult for Ukraine to defend.
When Putin seized Crimea, the international community responded by isolating Russia and imposing sanctions. Yet despite this pushback, it was clear that the United States, the European Union and the rest of NATO were not going to risk war with Russia over Crimea.
Taken in sum, these efforts may have avoided a military confrontation. But they also made it clear to Putin that while he might face some short-term pain, he could redraw Europe’s borders by force without fear of military pushback. And now, some seven years later, it is apparent that he has done just that.
Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have taken this lesson to heart. Indeed, he appears to have been emboldened by the democratic world’s collective failure to hold Putin to account after the seizure of Crimea. China continues to not only claim nearly the entire South China Sea, but physically fortify its islands there, prompting, again, “only muted response from the international community,” as US Air Force Capt. David Geaney put it in a recent op-ed.
If Xi believes he can get away with militarizing disputed land features in the South China Sea – and with sinking and harassing neighbors’ vessels there, as he has so far – he may very well see the Dongsha Islands as ripe for the taking.
In the event of such aggression, the rest of the world would be wise to bear in mind the lessons of Crimea. If the architects and most fervent supporters of the rules-based international order – namely, the United States, the EU, Japan and others – again fail to defend the victims of outright aggression and annexation, this time off China’s coast, the attractiveness and validity of that order will only further decline, as it has since 2014.
The United States and its partners cannot expect countries around the world to support and stand by the US-led international order, rather than defect to China’s illiberal vision for the world, if Washington and Brussels do not stand up for smaller countries that are threatened by the bullying behavior of nearby great powers.
In 2014, the international community’s red line should have been Crimea; today, it must be the Dongsha Islands.
Shahn Savino is a program analyst with VTG, a defense contractor. He is a member of the Black China Caucus and the National Association for Black Engagement with Asia. Follow him on Twitter @ShahnMarc.
Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, an associate at the LSE IDEAS think tank and a contributing editor of American Purpose, Francis Fukuyama’s new magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesDunst.