Josh Kucera from The Bug Pit asked me for my views on recent Russian criticisms of the USS Monterey Aegis-equipped cruiser participating in the Sea Breeze 2011 naval exercises in the Black Sea.
The purpose of the exercise is to conduct training in counter-piracy operations, non-combatant evacuation operations, boarding, and search and seizure. As Josh points out, none of this has anything to do with missile defense. Yet Russian objections focus on this issue. Josh quotes two Russian statements on the ship visit, the first from a Georgian newspaper and the second as reported by RIA-Novosti.
- “The Russian side has repeatedly stressed that we will not let pass unnoticed the appearance of elements of US strategic infrastructure in the immediate proximity to our borders and will see such steps as a threat to our security.”
- “The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier expressed concern that along with negotiations on cooperation in the global air defense system, [the U.S.] is conducting simultaneous ‘reconnaissance’ operations near the borders of our country.”
In addition to these objections related to missile defense, the foreign ministry also objected to the Monterey’s visit to Batumi, Georgia after the exercise:
And now this American warship has demonstratively entered the Georgian port of Batumi… Whatever the explanations are, it is clear that the Georgian authorities will see the incident as encouragement for their ambitions for revenge against the Russian allies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is unlikely to help stability in the region.
As I see it, the reason for the controversy is because the Russian side believes that they were promised that the U.S. would not send Aegis cruisers to the Black Sea unless there was some kind of imminent threat. Obviously that wasn’t the case here, so they think this is another case of promises broken, something they’re very sensitive about because of their perceptions of how NATO enlargement went down.
The Monterey has been officially designated as part of phase one of the European missile defense shield. It is normally stationed in the Mediterranean as a missile defense ship. So it wasn’t irrational for Russia to connect its arrival in the Black Sea with missile defense issues.
On the one hand, the purpose of the visit has nothing to do with missile defense. On the other hand, it’s obvious to everyone that by sending an Aegis cruiser to Batumi the US is making a statement. Not so much about missile defense, but about the US feeling that it has the right to send its warships anywhere it wants to without regard for the sensitivities of countries such as Russia. And Russian officials never miss the opportunity to turn a molehill into a mountain when it comes to that kind of symbolism.
At the same time, it seems to me that as far as the US is concerned, its navy is just following a long-stated policy that its ships will go anywhere they’re invited, without regard for what other states in the area think. So from that point of view they’re just following through. And they’re right that the ship’s purpose in the Black Sea has nothing to do with missile defense.
I think the US policy is consistent — after all, Moscow has objected to the presence of US warships in the Black Sea on several previous occasions. It’s just that sending an AEGIS cruiser has allowed Moscow to give its criticisms another form. Rather than just focusing on US ships visiting Georgia, it can now use the missile defense angle…
While Josh thinks this may have a negative effect on efforts to reset US-Russian relations, I’m not so sure. One should always be careful to distinguish Russian rhetoric from practical cooperation. While I think cooperation on missile defense is a dead end, there is every possibility of continuing cooperation on other issues that affect the security of both states. I would be surprised if any number of negative statements such as the ones put out by Moscow on the Monterey visit would affect that.
UPDATE: Regarding the last paragraph, Josh wrote me with the following clarification:
I don’t think this episode is causing problems between the US and Russia, but more that a symptom that something is wrong. Because otherwise Russia wouldn’t be making such a mountain out of this molehill, and possibly the US would have been a little more cautious about sending a provocative signal. But then, when we get
into Russian politics I’m definitely out of my element…
On this, I pretty much agree. There are still many people (on both sides) who are inherently suspicious of the other side’s intentions, and their statements just feed on each other to reproduce the cycle of suspicion and latent (or more) hostility. And that is going to keep causing problems for US-Russian relations for years to come.