According to a U.S. defense official who spoke with CNN on Thursday, the U.S. Navy may send warships into the Black Sea amid Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border.
In recent weeks, dozens of Russian tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters have been seen gathering along the Ukraine-Russia border. Russia recently increased its troop presence on the Ukrainian border during a set of March military drills, but some 4,000 troops remained in the border region since those drills ended on March 23. Renewed skirmishes between Russian and Ukrainian forces have also been reported and the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) reportedly raised its threat levels in Europe to a “potential imminent crisis” amid the Russian troop buildup.
The defense official told CNN the Navy has been flying reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the Black Sea, monitoring Russian naval activity and troop movements in Crimea. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukrainian control in 2014.
The U.S. could send warships into the Black Sea, which abuts the Ukraine-Russian border region, but under a 1936 treaty, the U.S. would first have to give Turkey 14 days of advanced notice before sending ships through the Turkish-controlled Bosporus Strait. The strait serves as the southern access point to the Black Sea.
It is unclear if a notice has yet been sent to Turkey.
The U.S. Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61) and Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116) were in the Black Sea as recently as March 29, as part of took part of the NATO Sea Shield 21 exercises.
On Wednesday, two US B-1 bombers flew missions over the Aegean Sea, which connects to the Black Sea by way of the Sea of Marmara.
Russian and Ukrainian forces have been fighting in a low-intensity conflict since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The fighting has seen some up occasional flare-ups in that time.
The U.S. official told CNN the U.S. doesn’t necessarily see Russia’s troop buildup as posturing for a new offensive, but said “if something changes we will be ready to respond.”
Last week U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and Blinken “affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.”
Russia’s troop buildup has also caused Ukraine to increase calls for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to approve its membership in the alliance. Ukraine has applied for NATO membership and is a member of NATO’s Partnership Interoperability Initiative, granting the country enhanced opportunities for partnerships with the alliance. This week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that NATO membership is the only way for Ukraine to put an end to its conflict with Russia.
Zelensky also called on NATO members to bolster their military presence in the Black Sea region, to serve as a “powerful deterrent” against Russia.