US backs Ukraine on two fronts
A US air force observation plane flew over Ukraine yesterday in a mission to show American support for Kiev following Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Sea of Azov last month.
The flight came as the US Navy prepared to send a warship into the Black Sea for the first time in four years, following the first open military incident between Kiev and Moscow since 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and a conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine.
“Today, the US and allies conducted an extraordinary flight under the Open Skies Treaty. The timing of this flight is intended to reaffirm US commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations,” the Pentagon said.
The US Navy sent notice to Turkey on Thursday that the ship from the 6th Fleet, which is based in Italy, would pass through the Bosphorus. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey cannot block the strait, which is an international shipping lane, but reserves the right to be informed before warships pass through.
Although NATO began sea and air patrols in the Black Sea last year, in response to a request from Romania for help to deter Russian aggression, this will be the first US deployment since April 2014 in the aftermath of the Crimea annexation. The Pentagon’s decision follows repeated calls from President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine for NATO to come to his country’s aid.
The US Navy declined to confirm whether its deployment was linked to the crisis triggered when Russia seized 24 sailors on the three Ukrainian vessels in the Azov, accessed by the Kerch Strait between Crimea and the Russian mainland, on November 25. The sailors have been put before a court in Simferopol, the main city in Crimea, and ordered to be held in pre-trial detention for two months.
Commander Kyle Raines, spokesman for the 6th Fleet, said that it was “always prepared to respond when called”. “We routinely conduct operations to advance security and stability throughout the US 6th Fleet area of operations, including the international waters and airspace of the Black Sea. We reserve the right to operate freely in accordance with international laws and norms.”
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday the Kremlin had information that the US was planning to build up its military presence in Cyprus, and warned that such a move would result in “dangerous and destabilising consequences”.
In 2003 Moscow and Kiev signed a treaty that had the effect of making the Azov shared territory. Russia has been harassing Ukrainian ships close to the area, however. Washington called its seizure of the three vessels “a dangerous escalation and a violation of international law”.
The Open Skies Treaty is aimed at promoting military transparency through reciprocal, unarmed observation flights over each of the 34 signatory countries’ terrains. The Pentagon said the Ukrainian military had requested the flight, which was on an OC-135 surveillance plane and had observers from the US, Canada, Germany, France, Britain, Romania and Ukraine aboard. This was the first “extraordinary” flight under the treaty since 2014.
“Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea near the Kerch Strait is a dangerous escalation in a pattern of increasingly provocative and threatening activity,” the Pentagon said. “The US seeks a better relationship with Russia, but this cannot happen while its unlawful and destabilising actions continue in Ukraine and elsewhere.”
Ukrainian paratroopers board a Il-76 transport at Ozerne air base bound for the front with Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country