Large-scale Sea Breeze exercises give the Ukrainian military an important experience of cooperation with allies and at the same time signal to Russia that the West continues to support Ukraine. But to what extent can Ukraine itself oppose Russia? And what real help from NATO can the country count on? Our journalists searched for answers to these questions during the week at the Sea Breeze 2021 exercise and beyond.
Russia: against since 1997
"It seems that the purpose of the Sea Breeze exercises is to practice fighting against the separatists. At the same time, according to Russian experts, the exercises are working on the blockade of the coast and the invasion of the territory covered by the riots."
"According to military experts with whom we discussed this topic, the Sea Breeze scenario is a plan of combat operations of NATO's ‘multinational forces’ against ‘separatists’ supported by a 'powerful neighbor'."
They also quote the script of the training back then:
"In the Orange Republic, which is part of a metropolis, separatists seized power and, with the support of a powerful neighbor, declared independence. At the request of the government, NATO peacekeepers arrive in the republic to restore constitutional order."
And over the decades, Russia's position has been communicated to Ukraine: "The Russian Ministry of Defense considers the conduct of these exercises in the Black Sea to be unjustified and not conducive to strengthening international confidence."
The following year, the Kremlin would change its mind and three Russian warships would take part in the Sea Breeze. This will be Russia's first and last participation in these exercises.
Celebration of the Day of the Ukrainian Navy in Odesa during the Sea Breeze 2021 exercise. Photo: Exercise Sea Breeze / Facebook
2021: Fend off Zmiyinyi Island
"We took the experience of events that we had in the Crimea. And on the basis of this scenario, the training script was devised so that all troops could work out the interaction. According to the script, the enemy will land on the island of Zmiyinyi, Tendriv Spit and in Bessarabia. We expect both air and sea landing," said Anatoliy Hlynenko, head of the Sea Breeze 2021 aviation exercise syndicate.
This year's exercise was the largest in its history - attended by 29 countries. At first, 32 states were announced, but the representatives of the Republic of Korea, Tunisia and Morocco got lost somewhere between the preliminary and final list of participants.
"This is a very serious and very traditional event for Ukraine. Even countries that are not formally related to Ukraine or NATO are participating. Important tasks of interaction with other navies and military of other countries are being worked out," says the director of the Center for International Studies of Odesa Mechnikov National University, Volodymyr Dubovyk.
According to him, after 2014, the exercises focus on what could happen if Russia continues to move deeper into Ukraine. Various scenarios, options for interaction and the Ukrainian army's response to such developments are being worked out.
"From a technical point of view, training allows for interoperability, and from a political point of view - trust," explains Anna Shelest, program director of the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”. “And when our Navy is already trusted, others know how we work, what we can do when it comes to personal contacts, it is extremely important. And at the political and diplomatic level, we are sending a signal to Russia who we are, what our presence in the Black Sea is and how much we are ready to fight for our territorial waters."
Dubovyk draws attention to the fact that in recent years a NATO warship has been constantly on duty in the Black Sea. This also sends a signal to Russia that Ukraine is not alone.
"This does not mean that if Russia attacks Odesa or our warships, NATO ships will go into battle, but moral support is very important for us," he said.
Celebration of the Day of the Ukrainian Navy in Odesa during the Sea Breeze 2021 exercise. Photo: Exercise Sea Breeze / Facebook
"Russia is turning the Black Sea into a Black Sea lake"
"Oleshkiv sands are very similar in landscape to part of the Ukrainian Donbas and the north of Crimea. How did you settle on this ground, what were you preparing for?" a journalist asks Oleksiy Doskato, the head of training of the Sea Breeze 2021 exercise from the Ukrainian side.
"We did not mean [to pick] a landscape reminiscent of Donbas or Crimea," assures Doskato, who is a deputy commander of the Navy outside of training. “We chose it because here we can perform the full range of tasks facing the multinational battalion-tactical group. In addition, this range is the main training ground for Ukrainian Marines."
But Russia's aggression goes beyond the occupation of Crimea and part of Donbas. Shelest identifies several components of Russia's strategy in the Black Sea.
"The first is an attempt to monopolize the Black Sea region. Demonstrate that this is the "Black Sea Lake" and that it is Russian. The second is to legitimize the occupied territorial waters. All their actions after the capture of Ukrainian ships indicate that they are trying to have dibs on at least a 12-mile zone around the Crimea in their bag. The third is to prevent NATO members from being active in the Black Sea region. And, in general, to minimize even calls here, to make it dangerous for them. This is done through militarization, provocations, closure of zones," said the expert.
Artem Filipenko, an expert at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, also notes that it is extremely important for Russia to show that it is the master of the Black Sea. Moreover, the situation there is not really in favor of Ukraine and NATO member countries.
"Russia wants to control the Black Sea region. And, in fact, it does control it. Except for the straits, perhaps. Thanks to the occupation and militarization of Crimea, they have the opportunity to dominate the Black Sea," said Filipenko.
The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends the Sea Breeze 2021 exercise. Photo: Exercise Sea Breeze / Facebook
"Pilot" Sea of Azov
Russia is consistently pushing Ukraine to its own coast, closing off the military and economic opportunities offered by shipping.
According to the bilateral agreement, the Sea of Azov is the inland sea of the two states, so both Ukrainian and Russian ships must have unimpeded access to all its parts. However, in fact, Ukraine controls only certain areas in the waters near the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.
"Unfortunately, we are seeing Ukraine being pushed back in the Black Sea as well," said Dubovyk, director of the Center for International Studies. "A few years ago, Russia seized our oil rigs. The West turned a blind eye to this. The Russians also closed part of the Black Sea for a month because they were allegedly training there. The blockade of the Black Sea coast will be a serious blow to Ukraine - not only from the military or geopolitical point of view, but also economically. Even because of the blockade of the Azov coast, our economy is suffering, we need to look for alternative workarounds, cargo delivery."
Joint exercises of the Ukrainian, American, Georgian and Romanian military in Oleshkiv Sands during Sea Breeze 2021 exercise. Photo: Exercise Sea Breeze / Facebook
Money from the UK, US, and the Romanian experience
Marines advance from several directions simultaneously. Exclamations are heard in Georgian and English. American commanders do not spare words. "Wow, what are those orders about," the Ukrainian military joke about the obscene language of their colleagues.
According to the script, these units of Ukraine, the United States, Georgia and Moldova operate in the deep rear of the enemy. Their task is to destroy the checkpoint, fuel and lubricant depots, and ammunition. Then surround the enemy, destroy him and retreat to the place of deployment.
"The difference between us and the Americans is that they rely more on tactical planning and we rely more on decisive action," said Yaroslav Kryklyvyi, a company commander of a separate Marine battalion, after the exercise.
But what does Ukraine need to be able to rely not only on the decisive actions of combat units?
"It's no secret, especially for the Russians, what we possess in reality. We do not have real weapons that can stop the invasion from the sea. But very soon, I think, no later than next year, we will have, with the help of the United States, the United Kingdom, a few small ships, a 'mosquito fleet', but with real combat capabilities: with modern anti-ship missiles, modern electronic weapons, will pose a threat to the Russian navy," said Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran on July 7.
The United Kingdom is to provide Ukraine with 1.25 billion pounds to build a fleet. The United States has funded the strengthening of naval units in Berdyansk and Mariupol to the tune of $4.5 million. And in Odesa, a $12 million center will be built for the Rapid Response Unit of the Marine Guard.
"The strategy of the Ukrainian Navy was adopted in 2018," said Anna Shelest, who was involved in the development of this document. “Back then we started off from rather small ambitions, bearing in mind what resources we had. It is now possible to increase ambitions based on the ability to rely on support from international partners. We constantly hear from our British and American colleagues, 'Tell us what you need?' They want to understand what the strategy is and how they can help."
But even with the strongest support of partners, Ukraine will not be able to match Russia's military potential. Therefore, it is necessary to answer asymmetrically, the expert of the National Institute for Strategic Studies Artem Filipenko claims.
"The goal (and this is recorded in all strategic documents) is to make the price of aggression too high for Russia. I can cite Romania as an example. It is also a poor country, but they spend money quite rationally. They bought used F16s to replace the old Soviet MiGs. They purchase anti-ship missile systems, and thus create a zone of control in the Black Sea region. They buy artillery systems, air defense systems," says Filipenko.
"This is what Ukraine needs - to create a shield to prevent aggressive actions on the part of Russia," he said.
Georgian military is training for Sea Breeze 2021. Photo: Border Police of Georgia / Facebook
NATO, Russia, and red lines
"Only two shots? There won’t be any more?" journalists ask the American and Ukrainian military about shots from "TOU" - the old analog of "Javelin".
"No, just the two," responds Matt Shibata, captain of the Second Division of the United States Marine Corps.
"They want more," one of the Ukrainian militaries explains the question to him.
The American spreads his hands and gestures that it costs money.
The same goes for Ukraine's membership in NATO. So far, the cost of this step is too high for the West.
"Most NATO countries support Ukraine and even want to punish Russia for what it is doing to Ukraine. But they support Ukraine as a partner - some through training, others through the supply of lethal weapons," said Volodymyr Dubovyk.
However, the alliance does not consider it possible to provide Ukraine with realistic membership prospects, as this could lead to a new escalation on the part of Russia.
"But this is the case with Russia - if you treat it gently, it perceives it as a signal of weakness, and may escalate. On the other hand, if you treat it harshly, they can also escalate. That is why it is difficult for the West to choose the optimal path for Ukraine," Dubovyk sums up.
However, some countries are not so much afraid of a new Cold War as cozying up to the Kremlin.
"The positions of all three NATO member states in the Black Sea region are somewhat inconsistent," explains Artem Filipenko. “Turkey is trying to deal pragmatically with Russia on security issues, arms purchases. Bulgaria is also sitting on a geopolitical "fence".
US Marines practice smoke screens during Sea Breeze 2021 exercise. Photo: Exercise Sea Breeze / Facebook
As an example, he cites the initiative of Romania, which in 2016 proposed to create a joint flotilla of NATO members in the Black Sea. Ukraine also wanted to join this configuration. But Bulgaria abandoned the idea.
"I would like to see sailboats, yachts and ships with tourists in the Black Sea, not military frigates," said then-Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
At the same time, the countries that joined NATO in the last waves of enlargement (Bulgaria, along with the three Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, became a member of the Alliance in 2004) followed the same logic as Ukraine now.
"They felt insecure, they said, 'We're in the gray zone, we're in the security vacuum zone. And we want to join NATO to protect ourselves from threats from Russia’. "And now we have the same logic. But these countries have accepted, and a different logic works for Ukraine. The red lines that Russia is constantly drawing in front of the West, they work here," said Dubovyk.
Prior to the war, reporters were told off-record at NATO headquarters: "You will not become a member of NATO until you reach an agreement with Russia." Now Ukraine is not required to negotiate with Russia, but, in fact, it is Moscow's position that is decisive.
"That's the problem - we can't agree with Russia," Dubovyk said. "The very fact of the existence of an independent powerful Ukraine next to Russia does not suit them. This is the mood of the elites, and public opinion. And the problem is not only with Putin - when he leaves, these sentiments will remain. This threat existed until 2014, and after 2014 it acquired new characteristics."
"Formally, we say that Russia does not have the opportunity to block Ukraine's membership in NATO. But many NATO countries pay attention to Russia's position and would rather not irritate the 'bear'", he states.