Why the Black Sea is at the heart of tensions between Washington and Moscow

Tension has escalated between Washington and Moscow. An American MQ-9 Reaper drone was intercepted in the Black Sea by Su-27 fighters and then “hit by a Russian plane, resulting in the crash and loss” of the flying object on Tuesday, according to General James Hecker, commander of the US air forces in Europe. An incident which revives the discord between Russia and the United States, in the light of the war in Ukraine, and reminds us that the Black Sea is a highly flammable zone, all the more so since February 24, 2022.

Why is this region so prone to escalating tensions? Can the interception of the American drone lead to an escalation of the Ukrainian conflict? For Carole Grimaud, expert at the Geneva Geostrategic Observatory and founder of the Center for Research on Russia and Eastern Europe (CREER), “if that doesn’t help” Russian-American relations, it is nevertheless acts as a “warning” from Moscow to Washington on the actions of NATO in the region.

Why is the Black Sea a region that concentrates many tensions?

This is not the first time an incident has occurred in the Black Sea. In June 2021, Russia had already claimed to have fired warning shots against a British ship which would have entered Russian territorial waters. At the time, the British Defense had denied having crossed the Russian line as well as “the assertion that bombs were dropped on [la] trajectory of the destroyer. Seven months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tensions were already palpable in this maritime area.

It must be said that the countries bordering this inland sea do not all share the same allies. There are both Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, member countries of NATO, but also Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and finally Russia. And precisely, for Moscow, the Black Sea represents “a strategic access by its underwater wealth, in particular in oil, but also by its geostrategic position”, explains Carole Grimaud. The position of the Russian fleet in Crimea is “essential”, adds the expert, who recalls that this is also one of the reasons for the annexation of the Ukrainian region by Moscow in 2014. The area is thus particularly hot towards the Crimea that Kiev intends to reconquer while the Russians consider the territory as theirs.

Could the drone incident trigger an escalation in the Ukrainian conflict?

By bringing down the American drone, the Russians show “that they are ready to defend the area”, adds Carole Grimaud. Because if the Russian army denies having caused the fall of the device, it nevertheless recognizes that two of its hunters intercepted it. For his part, the commander of the American air forces in Europe denounced “a dangerous and unprofessional act by the Russians. Kyiv, for its part, considers this to be a deliberate move aimed at escalating the conflict. Ukrainian Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov called the incident a “signal of [Vladimir] Putin” showing “that he is ready to expand the conflict zone and involve other parties in it. »

“I read this episode more as a warning than a real sign of escalation, if it had been an American plane manned by a pilot or a Russian fire against American equipment, it would have been another story”, nuance Carole Grimaud. The Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, has indeed declared that the Russians “assume that the United States […] will cease their flights near the Russian borders” while denying seeking “confrontation. This is then an alarm signal, a message sent to the Americans and more generally to NATO, many countries of which support the Ukrainian resistance, in “a critical period of high tension between Russia and the NATO,” adds the expert.

What is the American Reaper drone used for in the Black Sea?

According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the American drone had been detected “in the area of ​​the Crimean peninsula. But according to General James Hecker, the Reaper MQ-9 drone was performing “routine operations in international airspace”. It is a 20-meter wingspan remotely piloted aircraft, equipped with on-board sensors for surveillance, as well as armament. Flying at a cruising speed of 335 km/h, it has a range of more than 24 hours.

It is, in the case of the Black Sea, as elsewhere, used “for a surveillance mission”, according to Carole Grimaud. In the case that interests us, the drone was monitoring in particular “the Crimean area, Russian ships or even maritime traffic”, develops Carole Grimaud. In this very sensitive area, surveillance is therefore essential, in particular to observe the movements of the war in Ukraine.

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