Ominous Russian movements in Black Sea raise alarm

The Ukraine crisis entered a new state of intensity over the weekend, as the U.S. warned that movement by Russian troops — now numbering well over 100,000 along the Ukrainian border — and unspecified intelligence has led Washington to believe Moscow is on the brink of an invasion.

“We are in the window. And an invasion could begin — a major military action could begin — by Russia, in Ukraine, any day now,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday on CNN.

But it’s not just Russian troop movements that are setting off alarm bells. A large naval buildup in the Black and Mediterranean seas has created another threat to Ukraine near Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014.

“This is an unprecedented Russian naval presence,” Andrii Klymenko of Ukraine’s Institute of Black Sea Strategic Studies told Yahoo News via a translator, adding that 12 landing ships had appeared in the Black Sea on Friday. Such a concentration, he said, hasn’t been seen since the Cold War ended three decades ago.

“We haven’t seen a movement like this in recent history,” retired U.S. Adm. James Foggo, who commanded European NATO naval forces until last year, similarly told Politico.

According to Black Sea News, “On Saturday, Black Sea exercises started with more than 30 Russian military ships,” including submarines and cruisers. The drills are also using aviation and land troops in maneuvers, according to the website. The maneuvers, which officially began Feb. 13 and are scheduled to continue through Feb. 22, “will launch missile and bomb strikes” against sea, air and coastal targets, according to the site.

In its notification last week of the upcoming exercises in the Black Sea, a body of water that is about the size of the Northeastern U.S., the Russian government sent out a map showing “no-go zones,” shocking Mykhailo Samus, director of New Geopolitics Research Network, a think tank based in Kyiv.

“On the map, they’re closing down nearly half of the Black Sea,” he told Yahoo News. “It's crazy.” While countries normally close off certain zones during military exercises, he said, “normally it’s not half the sea.”

The Crimean Bridge, which that spans the Kerch Strait between the Azov and Black seas.
The Crimean Bridge, which spans the Kerch Strait, a narrow strip that links the Azov and Black seas. (Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said the Russian naval operation amounted to a blockade of the country, which relies on commercial sea vessels for over half of its exports. “The maneuvers make navigation” in both the Black and Azov seas “virtually impossible,” the Ukrainian government said.

Previous thinking held that Russia was unlikely to strike before the Feb. 20 end of the Beijing Olympics to avoid antagonizing the Chinese government. But the U.S. announced at the end of last week that its view of the crisis had shifted and it is now bracing for an attack to come any day.

The U.S. evacuated its embassy in Kyiv this weekend and told American citizens that it was “past time to leave” Ukraine. Other countries, including Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia and even Russia, have similarly evacuated embassy personnel. “Things could go crazy quickly,” President Biden warned in an NBC interview.

Biden has vowed that the U.S. would not send troops to Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO, saying such an effort would risk “world war.” But the U.S. has promised a punishing round of sanctions and a unified Western response to a Russian invasion.

Soldiers ride on tanks during a snowfall.
Soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces ride tanks during a drill in the Kharkiv Region in northeastern Ukraine. (Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

The Kremlin has rejected and downplayed reports that it plans to attack Ukraine, but it has not stopped encircling its ex-Soviet bloc neighbor. In addition to naval movements in the south, tens of thousands of Russians are engaged in military exercises with Belarusian forces to Ukraine’s north; pro-Russian separatists are also conducting drills in the Donbass region in Ukraine’s east, where Russia has armed and financed a proxy war for nearly eight years.

Washington has also been rapidly declassifying its intelligence on Russian movements, hoping that such transparency will frustrate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s operations. In particular, the U.S. has warned that the Kremlin is looking to stage a “false flag” attack to fabricate Ukrainian aggression and justify their supposed response.

“The world should be prepared for Russia staging a pretext and then launching a potential military action,” Sullivan said Sunday.

Inform Napalm, a respected volunteer Ukrainian intelligence group, spotted peculiar activity last week by Russian military near the Crimea Bridge, the almost 12-mile bridge constructed by Russia across the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, which is uneasily shared by Russia and Ukraine. Inform Napalm’s spokesman Mykhailo Makaruk noted that the group had received reports “about Russian military engineers” on boats “working near the bridge.”

“It is possible,” Makaruk added, “that they are planning to blow up their own bridge,” which opened in 2018 and connects Crimea to the Russian mainland.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council via teleconference call. (Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Klymenko thinks such an act is in the realm of possibility. “We also think that a Russian staging [of a false flag event] is possible — either an attack on a Russian ship in the Sea of Azov or a mock sabotage act against the Kerch [Crimean] Bridge, which is Mr. Putin’s favorite toy,” he told Yahoo News.

The Black Sea and Sea of Azov have been sites of mounting tensions between Russia and Ukraine, particularly over the past eight years. “Since 2014, Russia has total dominance in the Black Sea — total dominance — because they have six submarines with Kalibr cruise missiles with a 2,500-kilometer range, which is covering not only Ukraine, but half of Europe,” said Samus.

He said the situation in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov degraded rapidly after the events of late November 2018, when Russia blocked three Ukrainian military vessels from crossing from the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov. After refusing the ships entrance, the Russian navy pursued the Ukrainian vessels, ultimately firing on them, ramming one, and arresting the 24 Ukrainian crew members. Samus was stunned by Russia’s show that it had no intention of abiding by international law, but also that NATO had so little to say about the incident.

“International maritime law doesn’t exist in the Black Sea anymore,” Samus said.

President Biden wears a mask while walking outside.
President Biden walks away from Marine One to the White House. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Foggo, the retired U.S. admiral, recalled that incident earlier this month during an Atlantic Council webinar, calling it “outrageous” and “a violation of the Geneva Conventions.” Foggo added: “We didn’t do enough about it.”

Adding to the apprehension, NATO — which reportedly had planned to send several ships to the Black Sea in late January — has been pulling back from those waters. “In 2021, there was a high concentration of NATO ships in the Black Sea,” said Klymenko. But they left, he said, the last being a French missile frigate that departed on Jan. 2.

“Now there is an incomprehensible and dangerous pause,” he said. “We, as experts, government officials and diplomats, have been asking our partners for the past months to ensure the continued presence of NATO ships.” But NATO ships have yet to appear. (NATO did not respond to a request for comment.)

Samus added that Ukraine doesn’t have much of a navy, and “NATO doesn't have any strategy in Black Sea.”

A sign at a border crossing.
A sign marking the entrance to Belarus at the Ukraine-Belarus border in Vilcha, Ukraine. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

NATO ships are, however, in the nearby eastern Mediterranean, where three NATO allied aircraft carrier strike groups conducted exercises last week. However, Russian ships are also very near them in the Mediterranean — in what Klymenko fears may be a maneuver to prevent NATO vessels from entering the Black Sea.

Samus isn’t certain what to expect, but he believes that Putin may try to avoid sanctions by not actually launching a war from the Black Sea. Instead, Russia could strangle the Ukrainian economy by blocking commercial ships from getting to Ukrainian ports — a “hybrid attack” that “could be a disaster for the Ukrainian economy.”

Foggo, while applauding NATO’s unified response to the Russian threat, cautioned that the approach has thus far been far too “land-centric.” NATO “needs more maritime force,” he noted in the Feb. 4 Atlantic Council webinar, and it needs “a comprehensive NATO maritime strategy to deal with situations like this.”