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NATO naval exercise near Danube delta, Russia losing its grip on Black Sea

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Bucharest, Romania (Ports Europe) September 10, 2023 – Romanian and United States naval forces are the organisers of a multinational naval exercise Sea Breeze 23.3 that will take place from 11 to 15 September in the Black Sea near the Danube Delta in Romanian territorial waters. This confirms the inability of Russia to control the Black Sea and NATO support for the Ukrainian initiative “humanitarian corridor”.

Military personnel from the U.S., Romania, Türkiye (Turkey), Bulgaria, France, United Kingdom (all NATO members) and Ukraine will participate in the exercises, the Romanian Navy said. The inclusion of Ukraine is a clear signal to Moscow.

The primary objective of these naval exercises is to develop operational and tactical interoperability among the participating nations, particularly in countering explosive hazards such as maritime mines in order to ensure freedom of navigation.

The exercises, almost 18 months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are the first very visible message by NATO to Moscow. They are also a show of force that supports the Ukrainian initiative “humanitarian corridor” hugging the western Black Sea coast near NATO members Romania and Bulgaria, which was announced by Kyiv on August 8.

Four ships, stranded in Ukrainian Black Sea ports since the start of the war, have already sailed through the corridor since Moscow withdrew from the Black Sea Grain deal on July 17 breaking through the Russian Navy blockade. A dozen more vessels remain stranded in the three ports of the Odesa region and are expected to use the corridor proving that Russia is incapable of enforcing the blockade.

Bulgaria deploys anti-ship missiles for its coast guard

The bad news for Russia doesn’t end with the NATO naval exercise. Bulgaria announced on September 7 that it has started equipping its Black Sea coast guard with missiles so that “no one dares to approach the Black Sea cities” of the country, Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov said. He added that the state must develop its naval forces to be sufficiently prepared to defend the country.

“At the moment, we do not see a direct threat to Bulgarian ports, but force is answered with force. That’s why we started buying missiles for the Coast Guard,” Denkov said. “A signal has been sent to NATO that Russia is trying to make the Black Sea a Russian lake, the only way to resist is to respond to force with force”.

“Russian politicians have repeatedly said that after Ukraine, the Baltic republics and Moldova follow. It’s high time for the Bulgarian citizens to open their eyes that there is an aggressor who wants to take back the imperial influence,” Denkov said.

The Bulgarian Navy has three frigates, a guard ship, three corvettes and several minesweepers. In 2025 and 2026, the Bulgarian Navy will receive two new patrol ships. The possibility of a naval conflict breaking out in the Black Sea could not be ruled out because of Russia’s aggressive behaviour, Bulgarian Defence Minister Todor Tagarev said.

NATO deploys battalions in Bulgaria and Romania. Air surveillance over the Black Sea expanded

“The Black Sea is very important for NATO, we are monitoring the situation there carefully,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs on September 7.

He noted that NATO’s air surveillance over the Black Sea had been expanded, and NATO battalions were deployed in Bulgaria and Romania. “We have doubled the number of battalions on the eastern flank, we will do what is necessary to protect every inch of the alliance’s land,” Stoltenberg said.

He also announced that NATO member states are expected to increase defence spending by 8% this year – the biggest increase in decades. Stoltenberg underlined that Ukraine’s path to NATO had been shortened by the decisions of the NATO summit in Vilnius in July and that Kyiv would not have to implement a Membership Action Plan.

So far, the U.S. is declining Ukrainian requests to escort commercial vessels in the waters of NATO countries to ensure that the grain corridor keeps functioning.

The exercises and the grain export

Romania will participate in the exercise with a dredger, a high-speed diving ship, an armoured boat, three amphibious armoured personnel carriers, assault boats, and other naval vessels. The U.S. participation includes the maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft Poseidon, diver-engineers with boats and specialized equipment. The other participating countries will send divers, specialists in explosive ordnance disposal, and senior officers.

The exercises will take place days after Russian drone attacks on Ukraine’s Danube River ports of Izmail, Kiliya and Reni which are on the only waterway Ukraine is currently using to export its massive grain harvest.

In 2022, even before the Black Sea grain deal, Ukraine has been able to reopen a grain supply line by using its Danube River ports in the country’s far west. While the Black Sea ports have been blocked by the Russian Navy, Ukraine was able to dredge the channels in the Danube estuary to get vessels to the ports of Izmail, Reni, Kiliia, Ust-Dunaysk, Orlivka. From there the loaded vessels sailed to Romania’s Black Sea port of Constanta.

Lloyd’s, British maritime insurance house, says the ports logged a combined total of 279 outbound sailings of commercial vessels in June this year, up from 23 last year. In March, Ukraine exported 400,000 tonnes of food via the three ports. In June, it exported more than 1.5 million tonnes.

Russian drone attacks

For weeks now Russia has been attacking the Ukrainian Danube River ports of Izmail, Reni and Kylia with drones and missiles. These ports are the only ways for Ukraine to export its grain via cargo vessels since its Black Sea ports are blocked by the Russian Navy. All Russian attacks targeted grain export infrastructure in the ports.

Recent satellite images of Reni port, reviewed by the BBC, reveal that Russian attacks at the start of September have caused extensive damage to what looks like grain silos at the facility. This follows earlier strikes in July and August on silos, hangars and other buildings at the port. The port of Izmail, further to the east, has also been struck repeatedly in drone attacks as has the Zatoka bridge – a key link which allows grain trucks into Izmail by road.

Russia said on September 9 that it was sticking to its conditions for a return to the Black Sea grain deal. In particular, needed its state agricultural bank – and not a subsidiary of the bank, as proposed by the United Nations – to be reconnected to the international SWIFT bank payments system.

More Ports Europe news about the Ukrainian crisis

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