If you ignore the Russians, you might think the U.S. Navy ships being sent to the Black Sea for the Olympics are there to provide security “back-up” for Russian forces.
The Russians aren’t ignoring their own government or media, however. From their perspective, and that of others in the region, it doesn’t quite look the way it’s being reported in the Western media.
There’s been an interesting sequence of events. In late January, after hints began surfacing in Western media that the U.S. would deploy warships to the Black Sea for the Sochi Games, an article appeared on the Voice of Russia website angrily decrying this move. Russia has no need of U.S. help, the article insisted, and the U.S. action is an “unthinkable abomination.” Voice of Russia is always populist and frequently intemperate in tone, but it’s not a crank press outlet; it’s a state media organ.
Over the weekend, U.S. media began reporting that USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), the flagship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, was on the way to the Black Sea to provide security for Americans in Sochi. The initial report indicated that Mount Whitney would be joined in the Black Sea by a frigate, USS Taylor (FFG-50), which would leave Naples a short time later.
Subsequent reporting has begun stating that USS Ramage (DDG-61), an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, will go to the Black Sea with Mount Whitney. (See below. I don’t find that this reporting is sourced to the U.S. Navy.) Mount Whitney would normally deploy in company with a surface escort, typically a destroyer or frigate, which would provide air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine defense for the flagship. Mount Whitney is an armed warship herself, but does not have the extensive capabilities of an escort combatant, and is an exceptionally high-value asset.
USS Ramage, which has been deployed from the East coast since August 2013, was in Limassol, Cyprus through at least 3 February, when Cyprus’s minister of defense paid her a visit there.
The morning of 3 February, it was widely reported in regional media that Mount Whitney had entered the Black Sea. Ramage was reported by many of the media outlets to be with the flagship. But she wasn’t; she was in Cyprus, hosting Mr. Fotis Fotiou.
The Russian ministry of defense, meanwhile, was at pains to correct one aspect of the media reporting. Its spokesman asserted categorically that there were no U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea.
According to the Russian media, the reports that the ships were already in the Black Sea traced to the Ukrainian ministry of defense. The most widely copied version of this report, attributed to Ukraine, included the following passage:
Judging by the vector of their movement, one may presume the US warships are headed towards the Ukrainian Black Sea coast.
So: media were saying Mount Whitney and Ramage were in the Black Sea, headed for the Ukrainian coast. The Russians were saying neither ship was in the Black Sea. We know for sure that Ramage wasn’t.
About 12 hours later on 3 February, Turkish sources – who would actually have a means of knowing this for sure – finally reported that Mount Whitney had passed through the Bosporus, apparently in the afternoon hours of the 3rd.
And according to Hurriyet, one of Turkey’s principal press outlets, Mount Whitney won’t be going to Ukrainian waters, but instead will sit off Turkey’s coast in the eastern Black Sea, near the coastal town of Trabzon. (See map.) This report is likely to be true. It’s the kind of thing the U.S. would coordinate in advance with our NATO ally Turkey.
Both Hurriyet and Deniz Haber took care to characterize Mount Whitney’s entry into the Black Sea as “quiet.” This is unusual. U.S. warships go through the Bosporus on a fairly routine basis, and are often reported in Turkish media, without special characterizations that seem to suggest furtiveness.
Russia has, of course, made her own maritime security preparations for the Games. A BBC report from 3 February outlines what’s visible from the Sochi coast: a layer of armed speedboats, and a research ship, the Seliger, which has special capabilities for underwater detection. One or more warships of the Black Sea Fleet, which is homeported in Novorossiysk, is probably operating further offshore.
In the meantime, there is a theme in Ukrainian-language media connecting Mount Whitney’s presence in the Black Sea with the brewing crisis in Ukraine. (One sample out of many here. Most repeat the same verbiage.) There are widespread references to Mount Whitney’s deployment to the Black Sea in 2008 after Russia invaded Georgia, along with frequent repetition of the (probably erroneous) report that Mount Whitney’s course on 3 February was toward Ukrainian waters. The hope behind these speculations is, of course, unfounded.
As mentioned in my 21 January post (link above), as well as by my LU colleague Kevin Whiteman, there are about 300 U.S. Marines deployed to Romania in the Black Sea Rotational Force, which would potentially be an on-call response force for a crisis in Sochi. I am confident, however, that there are not 600 Marines on USS Mount Whitney, as reported in the regional media cited above. Besides these sources’ record of being wrong, there has been no reporting at all in U.S. media of a deployment of 600 Marines for Sochi security. That’s not something that could or would be kept a secret. (It would be a really big deal nowadays to muster that many extra Marines for such a deployment, to boot. They would fit on Mount Whitney, incidentally, but if they were deployed with her, nothing else would – including the combat gear 600 Marines would need to perform useful missions.)
To recap: U.S. media reporting suggests optimistically that our warships are going to the Black Sea to provide back-up security for Sochi. Our flagship looks like it’s creeping around trying not to excite attention. Probably Taylor is going; maybe Ramage is. Whoever’s going will apparently spend the Olympics doing doughnuts in the waters off the Turkish coast, well south of Sochi. Some Marines who are deployed in a force we’ve been manning since 2010 may be on-call, but no additional Marines have deployed. The Russians aren’t helping to make this story look the way the Obama administration wants it to. They’re just ignoring it, to the extent possible.* At least some Ukrainians are reading too much into it.
In other words, it’s a typical Obama administration foreign-policy event.
* With thanks to reader “jgets” for translation assistance: a report circulating in Greek media alludes to “Russian annoyance” at the U.S. warship deployment, because “up until now, no request for assistance [from the US] has been submitted by the Russian side. This, according to all Russian press agency reports.”