Russia has tested its air-defense systems in occupied Crimea as multinational military drills co-hosted by Ukraine and the United States were under way in the Black Sea.
A total of 32 countries, including most Black Sea nations, NATO allies, and partners are attending the Sea Breeze exercise, which kicked off on June 28 amid rising tensions between Russia and the West following an incident last week involving Russia and a British warship off the coast of Crimea.
Moscow seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after sending in troops and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by at least 100 countries. Moscow is also backing separatists in a war in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.
The exercise includes 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operations and dive teams and will last through July 10.
Russia's Black Sea fleet was cited by Interfax on June 29 as saying it had deployed around 20 aircraft and helicopters, including Su-24M bombers, as well as S-400 and Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems in the readiness tests.
"The Black Sea Fleet is doing a number of things to monitor the actions of ships from NATO and other countries taking part in Sea Breeze 2021," Interfax quoted the National Defense Management Center as saying in a separate statement.
The drills come after Russia claimed on June 23 that it fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of the British destroyer HMS Defender to force it to change course from the area near the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
Britain's Defense Ministry denied the HMS Defender had been fired upon, saying that Russia was carrying out a previously announced "gunnery exercise" in the area. Britain said it was practicing freedom of navigation in Ukrainian and international waters.
In response to the incident, Moscow warned it was prepared to fire on warships entering territorial waters it claims around Crimea.
And on June 29, the Netherlands said that Russian fighter jets armed with bombs and air-to-surface missiles repeatedly flew low over a Dutch Navy frigate in the Black Sea last week and carried out “mock attacks.”
"After hours of intimidation, disruptions to electronic equipment of [the warship Zr. Ms. Evertsen] also took place," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The incident occurred on June 24 southeast of Crimea, the ministry said, with Defense Minister Minister Ank Bijleveld-Schouten calling the Russian actions “irresponsible.”
“Evertsen has every right to sail there,” she said. “There is no justification whatsoever for this kind of aggressive act, which also unnecessarily increases the chance of accidents.”
Speaking in Vienna, the secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Helga Schmid, called for confidence-building measures to limit tensions in the Black Sea, saying that any incidents there could “spiral out of control.”
The OSCE's chairperson-in-office, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, expressed concerns about the Ukraine conflict, citing “worrying developments in the last couple of months with an increasing number of cease-fire violations, aggressive rhetoric, and unusual military activity by Russia, including restrictions of access to parts of the Black Sea.”