IMAGE: Twitter/US European Command
The Black Sea, a critical and strategic waterway in Europe’s southeastern flank bordered by NATO members Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, and Georgia and the two warring countries Russia and Ukraine has turned into a major flashpoint for exerting dominance, the sphere of influence and contentious area of geopolitical rivalries between the United States and Russia. The region, widely used as a launchpad for Russia's Black Sea fleet during the war with neighbouring Ukraine, turned into a hotbed for hostilities after two Russian Su-27 jets this week conducted an unsafe intercept of a US Air Force surveillance drone MQ-9 drone manoeuvring Black Sea—what the US military describes as the "international waters."
Russia accused Washington of provocation by conducting surveillance near the Crimean peninsula to assist the war efforts of Kyiv.
As seen in the US European Command's declassified footage, the Russian fighter jets approached the American drone from the rear quarter, shadowed the 60-feet-wide and 35-feet-long unmanned vehicle over the Black Sea, some 75 miles southwest of 2014 annexed Crimea, dumped fuel on it, blinded its optical instruments and destroyed the drone's rear-mounted propeller. The encounter forced the US military to ditch the $32 million drone by crashing it into the Black Sea. In the visuals, a Russian Su-27 fighter clipped on the propeller of the uncrewed US-made MQ-9 Reaper in what the Pentagon said was a “brazen violation of international law," causing it to crash approximately 4,000 to 5,000 deep in the water.
(A US MQ-9 drone is on display during an air show at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Credit: AP)
“It points to the lack of a comprehensive approach to a region that is important, not just to our allies and to the countries bordering the Black Sea, but it’s important to the United States’ security as well,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., told American broadcaster NBC.
US European Command described the fuel dumping confrontation of its UAV with the Russian warplanes, the first since the Cold War that lasted for at least a half hour, as “a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional" move.
"Was it intentional or not? Don't know yet. We know the intercept was intentional. We know the aggressive behaviour was intentional," asserted US Army Gen. Mark Milley at a briefing, as tensions esclated between the two geopolical rivals.
John Kirby, White House National Security Council spokesperson, echoed the stance, saying: "At best, it's reckless flying. At worst, it's reckless and incompetent."
The dramatic encounter between the American drone and Russian warplanes above the strategic bastion of the Black Sea is yet another incident in a region that has been at the center of the long-standing rivalry between Moscow, and the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]. Russia and NATO member states have routinely intercepted each other's warplanes over the Black Sea which is often described as the “potential powder keg" by military and geopolitical experts, a region where Russia aims to undermine NATO’s cohesion. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, had declared the black sea a “strategic region” for the Alliance, adding that the member states will strengthen their military presence in the region. Alliance has been attempting to strengthen Romania's military presence as the focal point.
Russia's Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu, had derided NATO's heavy naval presence and military infrastructure expansion in the Black Sea.
"There are navies and flotillas of noncoastal countries in the region and we [Russians] are closely watching them. What are they doing here? Naturally, we will stop at nothing to protect our country against any threats," Russia's Minister of Defense, Shoigu said.
The contentious maritime region is shifting gears of the regional power dynamics post-Soviet Union collapse. It is once again supercharged since Russia ordered an all-out military intervention of neighbouring Ukraine, an aspirant to the European Union bloc and NATO military alliance.
(Satellite images show Russian dolphin pens at Sevastopol Bay in Crimea. Credit: Maxar Technologies)
Ukraine's critical supplies of grain exit at least three ports on the Black Sea, where Russia's Sevastopol base of the Black Sea Fleet sits in the vicinity. While US Navy ships conducted routine exercises with the NATO allies in the Black Sea, leading to umpteen military encounters with Russia, the Biden administration had ordered the US military to pull out of the waterway after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The US does not have a vessel or military means to recover its drone parts from the sea marred with instability as it has been critical to the balance of power for multiple countries. Black Sea has been essential to NATO for its efforts of containment of exceedingly belligerent Moscow. Russia’s position in the Black Sea has been consolidated after it annexed Crimea and took control of Sevastopol, which happens to be its only warm-water port.
Both Russia and Turkey have a powerful naval presence in the Black Sea, the theatre of geopolitical competition. Georgia has deployed coast guards, and Romania and Bulgaria also flaunt significant Navy presence.
(British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender, USS Laboon and Dutch frigate HMNLS Evertsen take station for close proximity sailing as a Russian warship watches from afar in the Black Sea. Credit: US Navy/USNI)
(Turkey's drilling ship, Fatih, is sailing through Bosphorus toward Black Sea. Credit: AP)
Montreux Convention of 1936 gives Turkey unique maritime control over access to key straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles connecting Europe and Asia in the Black Sea, and the NATO member is now stopping warships from entering the sea through the Bosphorus Strait, which it controls and has the power to close during times of war. Tensions escalated between Turkey and Russia in late February after Ukraine’s Ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, demanded that Ankara enacts a 1936 agreement to stop Russian warships from crossing the straits into the Black Sea.
(Credit: H I Sutton/USNI)
(Credit: H I Sutton/USNI)
In 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the Black Sea was “almost becoming a Russian lake" as Russians intensified their military manoeuvres in a defiant posture against surveillance flights and warship patrols of the US, and the UK that often sent jets and vessels into the Black Sea.
Turkey has notably been an ally of both Ukraine and Russia during the war. Currently effective, Turkey’s enforcement of Montreux has blocked the Russian military from reinforcing its Black Sea fleet or moving warships from the Black Sea back into the Mediterranean creating friction with the NATO member. Turkey's control snubs Russia’s power projection in the eastern Mediterranean, and in Syria where its troops support the regime of President Bashar-al-Assad. Sinking of the Russia's Black Sea Fleet's warship Moskva on April 14, 2022, due to an attack with Ukrainian Neptune missiles and US intelligence coerced Russia into requesting Turkey to open the Bosporus and Dardanelles leading to further disagreements. In 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian jet on its border with Syria.