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USS Monterey’s Black Sea arrival raises Russia’s hackles

It’s not quite the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it has some Russians recalling that grim cold war episode.

Moscow claims the US is violating a strategic understanding, and potentially threatening Russia’s nuclear deterrent, by sending the antimissile cruiser USS Monterey to participate in Black Sea war games with a dozen other nations.

Russia, which objects to any US military incursion into the Black Sea, was bound to disapprove of this week’s Sea Breeze 2011 international naval exercises, cosponsored by the US and Ukraine, whose theme this year is antipiracy operations.

But the decision to send the Monterey, equipped with advanced Aegis antimissile weaponry, has Moscow unusually agitated and apparently fearful that the US is trying bypass ongoing – and deeply troubled – talks over European missile defense and slip a strategic threat into Russia’s own back yard under the cover of peaceful exercises.

“If a routine ‘visit’ to this extremely sensitive region is the issue, why was a warship with this particular type of weaponry chosen?,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a sharp statement Sunday.

“We have to state that our concerns continue to be ignored and under the guise of talks on European missile shield cooperation, efforts are under way to build the missile shield configuration whose consequences are dangerous and about which we have numerously informed our US and NATO partners,” it added.

The foreign ministry statement suggested Russia has received US assurances that the planned missile defense shield, designed to protect the West from rogue attacks, would mainly focus on ship-based Aegis deployments in the Mediterranean Sea, to defend southern Europe. They would only be sent to the Black Sea if the situation “deteriorated” in the region, it said.

“The Russian side has said on many occasions that we will not leave without attention to the emergence of elements of the US strategic infrastructure in the direct vicinity of our borders and will take such steps as a threat to our security,” it added.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry said it sees “no threat” to any country from the naval games, which are designed to highlight international cooperation on security issues of universal concern.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday that “[The Russians] are entitled to their opinion … . But we have a strong bilateral relationship with Ukraine, and it’s in keeping with that kind of partnership that these exercises take place.”

Ukraine has moved briskly into Russia’s strategic orbit over the past year, and effectively shelved its previous application to join NATO.

Experts say that international exercises like Sea Breeze are crucial elements in Kiev’s policy of trying to balance West against East, while hoping to enjoy good relations and wrest economic benefits from both.

But the Russians insist that missile defense is a make-or-break issue for US-Russia relations and they see the Monterey’s appearance in the Black Sea, sans prior consultations with Moscow, as a troubling precedent.

“The Black Sea is a closed sea, and the intrusion of this US warship breaks existing traditions,” says Konstantin Zatulin, a Duma deputy with the ruling United Russia party. “There is a realistic fear that the balance of forces in the region could be altered… .

“Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? We know how Americans react when someone drops new strategic facts into their backyard, so they should understand that this episode gives us no joy.”

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