The USS James E. Williams sailed into the Black Sea this week, the second U.S. warship in the past three months to patrol a region where fighting has increased between Ukrainian government troops and separatists backed by Russia.
Another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the USS Porter, completed a similar mission in August. The current patrol demonstrates the Navy’s more frequent presence in the Black Sea, where its ships once visited sporadically.
Russia has viewed the U.S. naval presence as aggressive posturing since 2014, when it annexed the Crimean Peninsula and began backing separatist forces fighting in eastern Ukraine. U.S. and European sanctions against Moscow have ratcheted tensions throughout much of Eastern Europe.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian media reported that a government soldier was killed and two others wounded in shelling by militants in the country’s east.
The Navy doesn’t attribute any particular significance to the increased frequency of its Black Sea patrols. Destroyers are there to augment allied defenses and protect waters of economic and military importance, officials said.
Besides its security patrol, the destroyer crew will train with the Ukrainian and Turkish navies, said Capt. Tate Westbrook, who oversees ships in the Sixth Fleet theater.
“These multinational operations improve our ability to operate together in this very strategic part of the world,” Westbrook said.
Some analysts say Washington must maintain a military presence in the region to assure allies concerned about Russian military activities.
“If Russia is always there and we aren’t, then the balance of perceptions tilts toward it,” said Jim Holmes, professor of strategy at the Naval War College. “So it behooves us to reply regularly to Russian excesses, lest people in that neck of the woods come to doubt our ability to keep our commitments to them.”
As the USS Williams approached the Black Sea on Saturday, a Russian interceptor flew within 50 feet of a Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol jet, creating turbulence that tilted the Poseidon. The incident, which military officials described as dangerous and unprofessional, underscored tensions between the two militaries.
The P-8s specialize in anti-submarine warfare and are equipped to track underwater movements. U.S. military officials have expressed concerns about Russia deploying more submarines in the Black Sea and Mediterranean.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said that countering Russian aggression against Ukraine is vital in maintaining the region’s stability. At an August meeting in Ukraine, Mattis condemned Russia’s seizure of Crimea, saying it breached international accords.
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