NATO is conducting some of its biggest naval exercises ever in the Black Sea, even as a new administration in Washington has cast into doubt how much the United States is interested in confronting Russia.
The latest round of exercises, Sea Shield 2017, started February 1 and are scheduled to last until February 10. The exercises will include eight ships from Romania, two from Turkey, and one each from Bulgaria, Canada, Spain, and the U.S.
The drills are aimed at "demonstrating our continued commitment to security and stability in the region," said Commander Andria Slough, commanding officer of the USS Porter, the American ship in the exercises. "Our upcoming operations are meant to help us improve interoperability, sharing of information and experiences, and the ability to work together toward peace and prosperity."
That's pretty standard stuff for the past few years, since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted the U.S. and NATO to significantly step up their naval presence in the Black Sea. This is the third iteration of Sea Shield since the exercise started in 2015, and has been accompanied by a number of other such drills.
But this one takes on a new significance as it's the first such exercise of the Donald Trump era in the White House. Trump, as everyone knows, has repeatedly cited his desire to create a better relationship with Russia and has derided NATO as an "outdated" organization. Over its first three weeks, the new administration has sent a variety of mixed signals with respect to Russia: Trump and his vice President Mike Pence have engaged in some whataboutism with respect to the U.S.'s moral superiority over Russia, while the U.S. envoy to the United Nations has promised that sanctions against Russia will remain as long as it occupies Crimea.
So the fact that NATO's Black Sea exercises are going more or less according to recent tradition -- even on a bit of a larger scale -- is itself newsworthy. Many Russians, who had placed outsized hopes that Trump would usher in a dramatically new, pro-Russia orientation in the White House, see this exercise (perhaps correctly) as a holdover from the old regime.
"In general we see that the anti-Russian military escalation machine, put into motion by Obama, continues to operate from Tallin to Constanta," wrote Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. "So far this inertia continues; the NATO budgets for these programs have been allocated and they have to be disbursed. And then new orders from Trump will come quickly."
And Russian newspaper Izvestia noted that the country's ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, "has not yet seen the indications of the correction of the alliance's plans on expanding its presence in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea connected with the new presidency of Donald Trump," in the newspaper's words.
"In January the deployment of tank brigades to Estonia started; the organization of battalions in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia has continued; the air-defense plans of NATO continue to be implemented; new NATO command cells on the eastern flank continue to be formed," Grushko told the newspaper.
Whether Trump will effect any real change in this remains to be seen, and NATO is in fact continuing to discuss expanding its military presence in the Black Sea. The alliance has put this off several times, but it sounds like they may be ready to launch something real. "We are strengthening our presence in the Black Sea region, with a package of measures on land, at sea and in the air," said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on January 31. "And we will finalise this work at our meeting of defence ministers in February. And several Allies have already indicated they will contribute to this presence. A strong sign of NATO solidarity."
Meanwhile, in another sign that things are continuing as per normal, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu issued a bellicose statement in response to the NATO drills.
"The exercises in the Black Sea have started and a large group of ships continue to enter the sea," Shoigu said. "Currently we see and are controlling everything that happens there. We hope that the exercises will be carried out in the safest manner without any sort of challenges toward Russia. In any case, we will be ready for that."
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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