WASHINGTON - The United States and NATO accused Russia of again ramping up tensions, criticizing Moscow’s plans to limit access to the Black Sea and the Kerch Strait for most of the next six months due to military exercises.
The U.S. Defense Department said Friday the Kremlin’s decision is “just the latest example” of Russian aggression in the Black Sea and insisted it would have no impact on U.S. plans.
“We have routinely operated naval warships in the Black Sea and that will continue," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters.
"We call on Russia to cease its harassment of vessels in the region and reverse its build-up of forces along Ukraine's border and in occupied Ukraine," he said.
An earlier statement from NATO called Russia’s decision to restrict access “an unjustified move.”
In a statement, NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said the planned restrictions appear to be part of “a broader pattern of destabilizing behavior.”
“Russia’s ongoing militarization of Crimea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov are further threats to Ukraine’s independence, and undermine the stability of the broader region,” Lungescu said. “We call on Russia to ensure free access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov and allow freedom of navigation.”
The U.S., NATO and other Western allies have been calling on Russia to de-escalate following what it has described as the Kremlin’s biggest military build-up since it seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The top commander for U.S. forces in Europe, Air Force General Tod Wolters, said Thursday there is a "low to medium" risk that Russia will launch some sort of military operation against Ukraine in the next week or two.
"There is a very large ground domain force … There's also a sizable air force, and there's a notable maritime force,” he told members of the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing in Washington. “It’s of great concern.”
Ukraine’s foreign ministry first expressed alarm Thursday at Russia’s move to shut down some access to the Black Sea and Kerch Strait, while also accusing Russian boats of trying to block Ukrainian ships in the Azov Sea.
Russia’s RIA news agency reported Friday that Moscow plans to suspend access to the Black Sea for foreign warships and “other state ships” starting next week, and that the restrictions will remain in place for about six months.
RIA, citing a statement from the Russian defense ministry, said the restrictions would not affect the Kerch Strait, which is a critical transit point for regional trade.
Last week, Turkish officials announced that the U.S. had notified them of plans to send two warships to the Black Sea, before canceling.
Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday that he was not aware of any U.S. naval vessels currently in the Black Sea.