NATO exercise Sea Breeze, held annually in the Black Sea, isn’t going quite as expected (it technically hasn’t started yet). This will be kept tight and focused tonight, as there’s no time to do more with it. But three events have been of particular interest so far.
Sea Breeze 2021, according to the press releases, will run from 28 June to 10 July and includes the participation of 32 nations. There being not nearly so many littoral nations fronting the Black Sea, that’s a lot of nations converging on the enclosed water feature, even though only some of them, representing NATO navies, actually have ships and maritime aircraft inside the Black Sea. The live participants are gathering in the Black Sea this week.
Two days ago, OSINT analyst H.I. Sutton had a report at the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) website disclosing that someone had apparently spoofed the automated position reporting systems (AIS) of two NATO warships, destroyer HMS Defender (D36) and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen (F805; you’ll see variations of the national designation of the latter, but it’s “HNLMS,” standing for His Netherlands Majesty’s Ship). This extraordinary cyber exploit made it appear that on 19 June, the two ships had approached the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where Russia has a naval base, seeming to come within “Crimean” territorial waters; i.e., within two miles of the harbor entrance.
— USNI News (@USNINews) June 21, 2021
The ships and their navies are clear that they were never there. And Sutton points out that webcam imagery shows them in port Odessa, Ukraine at the time the AIS “updates” appeared to indicate their approach to Sevastopol. That’s pretty incontrovertible evidence that the two warships were at a safe distance from where the AIS reporting suggested.
My initial reaction on seeing this report was that it’s something Russia is well capable of doing (spoofing the NATO ships’ AIS reporting). I don’t see another actor with a motive to do it. Russia’s motive would be to create an incident, or at least the appearance of one for political purposes. It’s Russia whose cookies are frosted by the NATO convergence on the Black Sea, and of course by NATO warships calling in Ukraine.
On Wednesday 23 June, indeed, the Russian defense minister summoned the defense attaché of the UK embassy in Moscow to complain that Russian patrol boats had had to fire warning shots to head HMS Defender off from “Russian” territorial waters that morning.
The UK categorically denies either improperly entering Russian waters or being fired on. The Brits asserted instead that Defender was making a routine innocent passage transit, in the recognized traffic scheme in Ukrainian waters – a Law of the Sea practice that doesn’t require Russian permission. (Note: the UN and NATO recognize the waters in question as Ukrainian. But if they were recognized as Russian, the location would actually be even more likely to be regarded as a venue for innocent passage, with a division of territorial seas that would afford neither Russia nor Ukraine the standard 12 nautical miles.)
The Brits also said Defender wasn’t fired on. According to them, Russia was conducting a gunnery exercise in a declared area nearby, but none of the rounds was directed toward Defender. The Russian version included a claim of a patrol aircraft dropping bombs near Defender — in her path to deter her advance — but the UK’s response suggests that didn’t happen at all: “No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender. The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law,” according to a UK Defence statement cited by CNN. “We believe the Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the Black Sea and provided the maritime community with prior warning of their activity. … No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognise the claim that bombs were dropped in her path.”
Without the time to develop this further, a couple of stopgap comments. One, this comes at the same time the Russian Pacific Fleet task force is off Hawaii, pretending to track and “sink” an aircraft carrier among other entertaining endeavors. The latest reporting on this enterprise indicates the Russians have a submarine with them, which would be the key asset they need to make sinking an aircraft carrier a credible naval task force exercise objective.
Two, as strange as it would seem for Russia (if it was Russia) to create an impression with the AIS spoofing that the Brits, the Netherlands, and indeed all of NATO know is not valid, Moscow is likely to have more in mind than merely getting passing incidents into media reporting. The Russians’ big Western forces exercise, Zapad (“West”) 2021, is expected to be extra-big this year, and will no doubt bustle with activity in all three Western fleets and air sectors: Northern, Baltic, and Black Sea.
Moscow could well use the alleged NATO encroachment incidents in the Black Sea to justify a string of actual encroachments by Russian forces when Zapad kicks off, presumably in late summer. As always, it will suck to be Ukraine and the Baltic Republics.
The third unexpected development is a bit ambiguous, but probably has Russia’s hand behind it as well. The U.S. Navy announcements of Sea Breeze listed the 32 nations said to be participating, and one of the nations in the list was Tunisia. (I imagine Tunisia’s participation was to be limited to tabletop planning and observation. Ukrainian reporting indicate representatives of Tunisia were present at a planning session in May.)
Tunisia is not a NATO member, of course, but has for decades been a friend of NATO, situated opposite Italy across the Strait of Sicily – a prime strategic chokepoint location – and sandwiched between Libya and Algeria.
Morocco and Israel are also participating in Sea Breeze 2021. And Tunisia came out on Wednesday stating flatly that her navy is not participating in the exercise, and the NATO press release is mistaken. Tunisia’s claim is that Tunisian forces would not be in an exercise with Israel – something that, until the Abraham Accords came into being last year, would have been taken as received wisdom.
I very much doubt the Navy added Tunisia’s name to a press release by mistake, however. (I do wonder if there was an agreement with NATO that Tunisia would participate but not be listed, which raises the profile of her participation. Perhaps that nicety wasn’t fully coordinated between NATO and the Sixth Fleet staff.) Cultivating Tunisia is important.
But it’s important for the same set of reasons that may have driven Tunisia to back out of Sea Breeze, or at least not want to be mentioned. The issue isn’t Israel; it’s Russia, and Russia’s cross-purposes position with respect to NATO in both the Black Sea and Libya.
Libya was for years a client of Russia, in both Soviet days and the years from 1991 to 2003. Moscow is now working hard in eastern Libya to promote the fortunes of General Khalifa Haftar, the “rebel” leader trying to consolidate Libya under his control.
Egypt and Russia are making common cause there, while NATO and the UN are backing the Government of National Accord, which nominally has the national seat in Tripoli but which controls little of the rest of Libya. Russia’s beloved Black Sea opponent, NATO member Turkey, is busy arming the GNA and putting down neo-Ottoman stakes for Ankara on Libya’s western coast.
Tunisia comes into it as the overflow room for recognized but powerless governments in Libya, like the GNA, that often find Tripoli too hot to handle. As a NATO partner, Tunisia can’t just be run roughshod over by the GNA’s opponents.
So Russia has been making up to Tunisia in the last few years, most recently helping Tunis put a satellite in orbit (which means a fresh source of satellite services for Russia), and vowing to boost the country’s tourism industry, which has taken a major hit from COVID-19. Russia is providing Tunisia with vaccines as well.
Tunisia is also more in the Qatar camp of the Arab Middle East, and prefers not to come under renewed Ottoman-style domination as Turkey settles in next door. In general, keeping her options open would look smart to Tunisia at the moment, and doing Russia a solid is an obvious way to keep that rolling. (Italy, a significant factor in this complicated dance, would prefer to have Russia balancing Turkey as one of the outside patrons in Libya.)
These various factors are sufficient to weight the scales toward Tunisia detaching from Sea Breeze if Russia presses the issue. Russia pressing the issue is the most likely scenario, although no one is talking. Israel’s participation perennially makes a plausible excuse for Tunisia’s reticence. (It’s noteworthy, however, that Tunisia, currently serving on the UN Security Council, joined with China and Norway in May to seek a UNSC meeting on the Israel-Gaza conflict, one that was widely thought to envision a larger role for China and Russia in the general mediation of Israel-Palestinian Arab relations. That stance would gratify Russia, Iran, and Qatar.)
America may be “back,” as President Biden has informed us several times. But it’s not the America of the post-1945 Pax Americana. We haven’t seen that America since sometime around 2008. The America that’s back now is more like the one from 100 years ago, shifting and dodging in a multipolar environment alongside European allies of various cantankerous stripes.