US Navy Heads for Black Sea, Russian Warships for Mediterranean

Since the flare-up of hostilities in Georgia, Washington has asked Ankara where it stands on a permanent US naval presence in the Black Sea to counter the Russian fleet deployed opposite Georgia and permanently based at the Ukraine’s Crimean port of Sevastopol.

Turkey has always resisted a NATO naval presence on this inland water, claiming that it is kept safe enough by the coastal nations, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria and Romania as well as Turkey.

Above all, Ankara sticks to the letter of the Montreux Agreement of 1936, which sanctifies Turkey’s sovereign control over the Bosphorus Straits and the Dardanelles and regulates the passage of combatant vessels.Turkey severely restricts the passage of non-Turkish military vessels and prohibits some types of warships, such as aircraft carriers, from passing through the Straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

One clause of the Montreux Agreement restricts the total weight of shipping belonging to any nation which does not border the Black Sea to 45,000 tons. It is this clause which Ankara invoked in first refusing Washington’s request, arguing that the deployment of NATO forces in the Black Sea would breach this historic agreement.

As a result, the Russian Navy retains absolute, undisputed control of the Black Sea, which the United States is seeking to challenge.

Thursday, August 21, Turkey, itself a NATO member, authorized three U.S. naval ships to sail through the Turkish straits into the Black Sea to carry humanitarian aid to Georgia.

The two Navy ships and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter carrying blankets, hygiene kits, baby food and infant care supplies were expected to arrive in Georgia in one week.


Russian warships enter the Mediterranean


Meanwhile, on Aug. 18, a large Russian flotilla embarked from Murmansk to take up position in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus. Whereas no historic conventions are at stake here, still the deployment of a Russian aircraft carrier, a missile cruiser and four nuclear submarines cheek by jowl with the US Sixth Fleet, which dominates the waters of the East Mediterranean, flirts with friction.

Ukraine, on the side of NATO, is another key player in the Black Sea contest.

On August 10, three days after the Georgia conflict flared, Kiev warned Moscow that if the Russian Black Sea Fleet took part in the fighting, the big Ukrainian big naval base at Sevastopol, on the Black Sea coast of the Crimean Peninsula, would be closed to returning Russian warships.

This fleet’s military involvement was described as a dangerous precedent.

On August 13, the Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko announced that warships and planes may only cross Ukraine’s state border after a 72-hour prior notice to the Ukrainian General Staff. This notice must include information about arms, ammunition, explosives and military equipment, he said.

In a further move to limit the scope of the Russian fleet’s activities, the acting chairman of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Valentin Nalivaichenko, proposed creating an international committee to develop a mechanism for exercising some control over its naval operations.


Ukraine tries to restrain the Russian Black Sea fleet – and fails


All of the Russian Fleet’s activities at sea should be investigated, he said, to ascertain that they were consistent with Ukrainian law and international agreements.

The Russian president, Dimitry Medvedev, bluntly dismissed these measures as inconsistent with Russian-Ukrainian agreements and unfriendly to Moscow.

“The Black Sea will remain in the zone of our special control. We do not need instructions on how to behave,” said Medvedev in Vladikavkaz, the capital of Russian North Ossetia on Monday, Aug. 18.

He added that the situation around the Black Sea will “strictly comply with the international agreements and the decrees signed by myself as the supreme commander-in-chief. Unqualified interference will not result in anything good.”

Tuesday, Aug. 19, Russia gave Kiev notice that two of its navy ships would be returning to their Sevastopol base in the next two days from operations against Georgia.

Clearly, Russia has no intention of relinquishing its absolute control of Black Sea waters, or complying with Yushchenko’s conditions for using the Ukrainian port Sevastopol.

After Ukraine’s summary dismissal by Moscow, will Washington still go ahead with its bid for free NATO navigation in the Black Sea? And if so, how will Moscow react?

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