Black Sea and Crimea are the new geopolitical flashpoints

Black Sea and Crimea are the new geopolitical flashpoints

Restoring works on damaged parts of the Kerch Bridge that links Crimea to Russia. (AFP)
Restoring works on damaged parts of the Kerch Bridge that links Crimea to Russia. (AFP)
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Tensions between Moscow and Washington increased last week, further complicating already complex relations, especially in the recent political breach caused by the Ukraine war. The US is the biggest source of military help to Ukraine, providing over $29.3 billion since the Russian invasion in February 2022.

This week the Pentagon released video of two Russian Su-27 fighter jets dumping fuel on a US MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday. The US military described Moscow’s actions as “unsafe, unprofessional and reckless,” while Russia denied that the jet came into contact with the drone. Russia said its its aircraft “did not use airborne weapons or come into conflict” with the US drone. As always with these two sides, there are at least two different stories. But should the international community be concerned about the incident? To what extent is the situation alarming, and why does it matter?

First, the incident clearly challenges relations that are already, as Russia said in January 2023, “at an all-time low.” After the incident the US summoned the Russian ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, who said: “We view this incident as provocative.” The Pentagon said its drone was on a routine intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission, which is normal for the MQ-9 Reaper.

The US military said Russia was likely to attempt to recover debris from the downed drone. “We do have indicators that Russia is likely making an effort to try to recover MQ-9 debris … however, we assess it’s very unlikely that they would be able to recover anything useful,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said. Moscow may also be interested in sending drone debris to Iran for reverse engineering, as Tehran already supplies its own drones to Moscow. The US blamed Iran for shooting down an MQ-9 Reaper with a surface-to-air missile in Yemen in 2019. Importantly, though, Antonov explicitly stated that Russia did not want “confrontation” with the US. Though relations have deteriorated further with the US response, the Russian side’s comment might suggest a reduction in the possibility of open military confrontation; rather we should expect further worsening political ties.

Indirect relations will be tested in the Ukraine conflict. There is a plausible scenario of the spread of attention and tension toward the Black Sea, as this incident occurred in a strategically important location about 110 km southwest of Crimea. In recent months both Ukraine and Russia have concentrated their fighting around Bakhmut, which Russian troops must go through to push deeper into eastern Donetsk.

The Ukrainians have expressed their concern over Russia’s growing presence in the Black Sea.

Dr. Diana Galeeva

The symbolism of the Black Sea is also related to the recent history of Crimea. The US drone was flying in the region as part of a regular patrol of international airspace over the Black Sea, scheduled since 2014 after the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Russia, on another hand, claims that this area and therefore the drone’s activities fall under the sphere of the Ukraine war. Ambassador Antonov said the airspace was “identified as a zone for the special military operation,” the Russian term for the conflict. At the same time, the Ukrainians have expressed their concern over Russia’s growing presence in the Black Sea with a “rather atypical number of ships.”

This may suggest a possible direction of fighting moving toward the Black Sea and closer to Crimean areas. This would be related to what most experts argue, which is that the Ukraine war really began in 2014, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Among other rhetoric around what victory for Ukraine would include, and whether to start any negotiations, the return to the 2014 borders is mentioned. In other words, among the key Ukraine demands is that Crimea must be part of Ukraine. This could result in re-emerging focus toward Crimea from both sides. This would clearly escalate the Ukraine war in addition to further straining Russia-US relations. Alternatively, given that such drones flights are normal practice in this area, and given Russia’s comments that it does not want to escalate the tensions further, a less alarming scenario might be negotiations over the incident between the Kremlin and the White House, at least keeping communications open.

Since the US is the biggest sponsor of Ukraine’s defense of its territory against the Russian invasion, with the highest military outlay since the Second World War — not to mention cyberattacks, election interference, and broader positioning, as the US leadership projects the confrontation as being between democracy and autocracy — it seems that relations between the US and Russia will never normalize under the current leaderships. The Ukraine war is a place where competition between two states is being played out, along with many other permutations. Nonetheless, indirect confrontation between the two sides remains more likely than direct clashes, and Ukraine is the setting for that. The question is where the next battle will take place, and it is highly possible that we see a shift in the key locations contested toward the already problematic Crimean and Black Sea areas.

Dr. Diana Galeeva is a former academic visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University (2019-2022). Twitter: @Dr_GaleevaDiana



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