Russians Say U.S. Naval Visit to Black Sea "Threat to Our Security." Are They Right?
Russia has strongly objected to the visit of a U.S. naval cruiser to Batumi, Georgia, arguing that it is a provocation because the U.S. ship is part of the missile defense system to which Russia is strongly opposed.
On the surface, the visit of the ship, the USS Monterey, has nothing to do with the missile defense controversy. It is in the Black Sea for joint U.S.-Ukraine exercises including "counter-piracy operations; non-combatant evacuation operations, as well as board, search and seizure trainings." Other countries taking part are Azerbaijan, Algeria, Belgium, Denmark, Georgia, Germany, Macedonia, Moldova, Sweden, Turkey and the UK. The U.S. Embassy says the visit is a normal training mission:
The USS MONTEREY is operating in the Black Sea to conduct joint maritime training with several countries adjoining the Black Sea. U.S. ships have regularly deployed in the Black Sea region for many years and represent the continuing U.S. commitment to Black Sea regional stability and maritime security.
But that hides a more insidious intent, Russia argues. The Monterey is equipped with the Aegis radar system, and as such would be part of the European missile defense shield that the U.S. wants to build around Russia. And so the visit, Russia says, is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Via RIA Novosti:
"The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier expressed concern that along with negotiations on cooperation in the global air defense system, [the U.S.] is conducting simultaneous 'reconnaissance' operations near the borders of our country," the ministry said.
Russia has been deeply concerned over U.S. plans to deploy a European air defense system near the Russian borders, saying it threatened its national security. Washington said it needed the system as a shield against possible threats from Iran or North Korea.
"And now this American warship has demonstratively entered the Georgian port of Batumi," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The earlier expression of concern that the statement refers to a previous statement, when the Monterey first entered the Black Sea: "The Russian side has repeatedly stressed that we will not let pass unnoticed the appearance of elements of US strategic infrastructure in the immediate proximity to our borders and will see such steps as a threat to our security."
In addition, visiting Georgia is a reckless move in and of itself, Moscow says:
"Whatever the explanations are, it is clear that the Georgian authorities will see the incident as encouragement for their ambitions for revenge against the Russian allies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is unlikely to help stability in the region," the ministry said.
Reconnaissance and a "threat to security," or a routine training mission? I asked Russian naval expert Dmitry Gorenburg, and he said that while Russia may be overreacting, the U.S. also is "making a statement" by sending a missile defense ship:
The reason for the controversy is because the Russian side believes that they were promised that the US would not send Aegis cruisers to the Black Sea unless there was some kind of imminent threat. Obviously that wasn't the case here, so they think this is another case of promises broken, something they're very sensitive about because of their perceptions of how NATO enlargement went down.
The Monterey has been officially designated as phase one of the European missile defense shield. It is normally stationed in the Med as a missile defense ship. So it wasn't irrational for Russia to connect its arrival in the Black Sea with missile defense issues.
On the one hand, the purpose of the visit has nothing to do with missile defense. On the other hand, it's obvious to everyone that by sending an Aegis cruiser to Batumi the US is making a statement. Not so much about missile defense, but about the US feeling that it has the right to send its warships anywhere it wants to without regard for the sensitivities of countries such as Russia. And Russian officials never miss the opportunity to turn a molehill into a mountain when it comes to that kind of symbolism.
I won't presume to guess what this might mean for the U.S.-Russia reset, but it's not good.
UPDATE: Gorenburg has expanded on his remarks on his own blog, which is well worth reading.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.