Black Sea and Crimea are the new geopolitical flashpoints
DR. DIANA GALEEVA/arabnews:
Tensions between Moscow and Washington increased last week, further complicating already complex relations, especially in the recent political breach caused by the Ukraine war. The US is the biggest source of military help to Ukraine, providing over $29.3 billion since the Russian invasion in February 2022.
This week the Pentagon released video of two Russian Su-27 fighter jets dumping fuel on a US MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday. The US military described Moscow’s actions as “unsafe, unprofessional and reckless,” while Russia denied that the jet came into contact with the drone. Russia said its its aircraft “did not use airborne weapons or come into conflict” with the US drone. As always with these two sides, there are at least two different stories. But should the international community be concerned about the incident? To what extent is the situation alarming, and why does it matter? First, the incident clearly challenges relations that are already, as Russia said in January 2023, “at an all-time low.” After the incident the US summoned the Russian ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, who said: “We view this incident as provocative.” The Pentagon said its drone was on a routine intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission, which is normal for the MQ-9 Reaper.
The US military said Russia was likely to attempt to recover debris from the downed drone. “We do have indicators that Russia is likely making an effort to try to recover MQ-9 debris … however, we assess it’s very unlikely that they would be able to recover anything useful,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said. Moscow may also be interested in sending drone debris to Iran for reverse engineering, as Tehran already supplies its own drones to Moscow. The US blamed Iran for shooting down an MQ-9 Reaper with a surface-to-air missile in Yemen in 2019. Importantly, though, Antonov explicitly stated that Russia did not want “confrontation” with the US. Though relations have deteriorated further with the US response, the Russian side’s comment might suggest a reduction in the possibility of open military confrontation; rather we should expect further worsening political ties.
Indirect relations will be tested in the Ukraine conflict. There is a plausible scenario of the spread of attention and tension toward the Black Sea, as this incident occurred in a strategically important location about 110 km southwest of Crimea. In recent months both Ukraine and Russia have concentrated their fighting around Bakhmut, which Russian troops must go through to push deeper into eastern Donetsk. The symbolism of the Black Sea is also related to the recent history of Crimea. The US drone was flying in the region as part of a regular patrol of international airspace over the Black Sea, scheduled since 2014 after the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Russia, on another hand, claims that this area and therefore the drone’s activities fall under the sphere of the Ukraine war. Ambassador Antonov said the airspace was “identified as a zone for the special military operation,” the Russian term for the conflict. At the same time, the Ukrainians have expressed their concern over Russia’s growing presence in the Black Sea with a “rather atypical number of ships.