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Russia shadows USS Donald Cook as it heads to Black Sea

The USS Donald Cook (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Herman/Released)

The USS Donald Cook transited the Dardanelles Strait on Tuesday en route to its second Black Sea operation in a month as Russia again shadows the ship amid growing tensions between Moscow and the West.

The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer made a port stop last month in Batumi, Georgia, and conducted an exercise with two of that country’s coast guard vessels, while the Russian navy watched.

Moscow’s state news agency Tass reported Tuesday that the Russian Black Sea Fleet was “continuously tracking” the Donald Cook’s movements. It departed the Black Sea on Jan. 28.

This is the fourth time this year the Navy has sent a warship to the Black Sea, following Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian vessels and arrest of 24 sailors in late November at the Kerch Strait. The U.S. and its allies have condemned the incident.

Navy officials say the ship is augmenting maritime security, helping to ensure regional stability and boosting the readiness and capability of military allies.

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“Each visit here affords us the unique opportunity to work with our regional maritime partners,” said Cmdr. Matthew Powel, commanding officer of the Donald Cook, in a statement.

Moscow would view any U.S. warship in the region for any length of time as a provocation, said Emily Ferris, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

“Given the recent incident in the Kerch Strait, the U.S. move to send a warship to the Black Sea will undoubtedly exacerbate tensions with Russia,” she said.

Tensions have simmered in the region since Russia seized Crimea in 2014, and escalated last year when Russia captured the three Ukrainian vessels.

Russia claims the vessels trespassed in its territorial waters, while Ukraine says they were in international waters. Most of the world backs Ukraine.

Ukraine contends Russia’s naval patrols and its Crimean road bridge — built deliberately low — impede Ukrainian merchants ships trying to reach vital ports.

Russia is trying to squeeze Ukraine economically to punish it for aligning with NATO, Ferris said, adding that Russia also doesn’t want to make Ukraine too unstable.

“Maintaining a delicate level of instability fuels Russia’s narrative that Ukraine’s political alignment with the West and its structure have not paid off,” Ferris said.

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.