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With close military encounters on opposite sides of the world, Russia is sending a message to the West

The British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender arrives in the Black Sea port of Batumi on June 26, 2021.
British destroyer HMS Defender in the Black Sea port of Batumi, June 26, 2021.
Seyran Baroyan/AFP via Getty Images
  • Russia's military had close encounters with its US and European rivals in the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean in June.
  • The incidents and exercises were messages about Russia's military capabilities, experts told Insider.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Close encounters between Russia's military and US and European forces in June were signals from Moscow to its rivals about its capabilities and how it was willing to use them, experts said this month.

On June 23, Russian combat aircraft flew over the British destroyer HMS Defender as it conducted an "innocent passage" near Crimea.

Russia claimed it fired warning shots and dropped bombs near the warship, which the UK denied, though the British defense minister said Russian jets performed maneuvers that were "neither safe nor professional."

In the same area a day later, Russian jets repeatedly flew close to Dutch frigate HNLMS Eversten while conducting mock attacks, creating what the Dutch Defense Ministry called "a dangerous situation."

Eversten's commander said it was in international waters and that the Russian actions were "irresponsible and unsafe."

Those incidents have "a larger message," said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute.

A Russian fighter jet flying past the HNLMS Eversten in the Black Sea
A Russian fighter jet flying past the Dutch frigate HNLMS Eversten in the Black Sea, June 24, 2021.
Dutch defense ministry

"Moscow is increasingly willing and able to enforce what it sees as territorial and operational red lines, and Crimea and the Black Sea are a major focus of attention," Rojansky told Insider.

Tensions remain high after Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, and Moscow has sought to "set the precedent" that it controls its territorial claims there, Rojansky said, citing the 2018 Kerch Strait incident.

"All this traces back to Putin's words in March 2014, when he justified the Russian seizure of Crimea as being about keeping NATO out," Rojansky added.

Russia's military drilled around Crimea throughout the end of June and early July, focusing on attacking the ships of "a notional enemy." The US- and Ukrainian-led exercise Sea Breeze also kicked off in late June and was the largest iteration in its 21-year history, with 32 countries participating.

Moscow described Sea Breeze as "openly anti-Russian," but US and NATO officials stressed that it was defensive in nature and done in accordance with international law.

"It's one of the most robust Sea Breeze exercises we've conducted to date, and we're proud of that," chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said July 6.

F-35 fighter jet over HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier
Aircraft from HMS Queen Elizabeth during an exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, June 2021.
British Royal Navy

The Black Sea incidents also overlapped with Russian and British-led exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailing with US F-35B fighter jets aboard, conducted exercises and combat operations against ISIS during the final days of June.

US and British jets found themselves in a "cat-and-mouse" game with Russia, which angled to keep an eye on them as Russian warships and aircraft conducted reconnaissance and air-defense drills.

Their proximity was not a coincidence, according to Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA.

Russia has deployed more forces to its improved military facilities in Syria, while the UK is putting HMS Queen Elizabeth, its newest carrier, through real-world testing during its maiden deployment.

"A force-on-force interaction that's not planned is probably one the best ways to generate these kind of lessons and experience for the Royal Navy," Kofman said on a recent podcast, adding that Russia used "the British deployment as an opportunity to essentially ... train strike missions against NATO ships."

'Ready and present'

The Russian navy Varyag missile cruiser ensuring air defence in the Mediterranean Sea.
Russian guided-missile cruiser Varyag.
Vadim Savitsky\TASS via Getty Images

Mid-June also saw a major Russian exercise in the central Pacific Ocean, with warships and aircraft conducting what Russian officials called their largest exercise there since the Cold War.

Much of their activity was several hundred miles from Hawaii, but US officials said some Russian ships came within 30 nautical miles of the islands.

Russian long-range-bomber operations during the exercise twice prompted US F-22 fighters to scramble for potential intercepts, though US officials said Russian aircraft never came close to Hawaii. (US and Russian aircraft regularly intercept each other over the Pacific.)

The exercise was "unprecedented" in its size and its distance from Russia, according to Carl Shuster, a retired US Navy captain who was director of operations at US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center in the 1990s.

"The Soviet Navy never conducted exercises this close to the Hawaiian Islands," Shuster told Insider.

"The Russian political statement was 'we've returned as a Pacific maritime power and can reach your territory just as you are reaching ours in the Black Sea,'" Shuster added. "The target audience of course was the Russian people and the American leadership."

US Navy cruiser USS Chosin and Russian Navy destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov
Russian destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, foreground, with US guided-missile cruiser USS Chosin in the Yellow Sea, March 31, 2006.
US Navy/PT Mate 2nd Class Nathanael T. Miller

The Pacific exercise — which took place around the Biden-Putin summit in Switzerland — was also a demonstration of military capability, featuring what Moscow called "the tasks of detecting, countering and delivering missile strikes against an aircraft carrier strike group."

The ships involved included guided-missile cruiser Varyag, Russia's Pacific Fleet flagship, and destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, which carries Kalibr missiles, a weapon that worries US commanders and "presented the potential military threat that gave the message credibility," Shuster said.

US military forces "remain ready and present in the Indo-Pacific," Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesman, told Insider, calling it the US's "priority theater."

The Russian warships that conducted the Pacific exercise returned to port earlier this month, but encounters between Russian and NATO forces in the Black Sea and the Pacific have continued. Russian officials continue to call the HMS Defender incident a "provocation" and warn about future run-ins.

"Russia will continue to foil such actions using the harshest methods, regardless of the nationality of the violator," Mikhail Popov, deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council, said this week.

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