Moscow — Tension between Russia and the West has escalated further this week, with Russia staging more military exercises in the Black Sea and. In a clear sign of cooling relations, the United States' ambassador in Moscow the country for "consultations" back in the U.S.
Over 20 Russian vessels took part in the latest exercises along with Su-25SM3 attack aircraft, as part of a check of the fleet's forces, Russia's Black Sea Fleet said on Tuesday.
Russia also announced that it was closing the airspace over parts of Crimea and the Black Sea, saying the areas had been "declared temporarily dangerous for aircraft flights," Russia's Interfax news agency reported on Tuesday, citing an official notice sent to pilots.
Troops at the Ukrainian border
Over 100,000 Russian forces have massed on Ukraine's border and in Crimea, the office of European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said after a briefing by Ukraine's foreign minister.
Crimea is the peninsula that was unilaterally annexed away from Ukraine by President Vladimir Putin in 2014. His government now considers it Russian territory, and while the U.S. and Europe have refused to acknowledge the takeover, the Russian military has firm control over the outcrop of land in the Black Sea.
"It's the highest military deployment of Russian army in Ukrainian borders ever," said Borrell. He initially said Russia had massed over 150,000 troops in the region, but his comments were later corrected without elaboration.
The Maxar satellite imagery company provided almost a dozen images on Tuesday that it said showed increased movements and an influx of Russian military hardware at numerous locations in Crimea, Ukraine, and near the shared border over the past several weeks.
The buildup has come amid a spike in hostilities in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been locked in a simmering war with Ukraine's U.S. and European-backed military since 2014. The increase in the violence in eastern Ukraine has raised fears internationally of a possible flareup in the so-called frozen conflict.
While U.S. military officials haven't seen anything yet to suggest Russia is gearing up for an imminent cross-border incursion into Ukraine, the United States, the U.K. and European states have criticized Moscow for the military buildup.
The Kremlin has shrugged off all calls to withdraw the troops and hardware, saying Russian forces are free to move about Russian territory as they see fit, and to respond to what Moscow calls "provocative" moves by the NATO alliance near its borders.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Moscow was not responsible for the soaring tension. He called on other countries to refrain from "mass anti-Russian psychosis."
Warships in the Black Sea
Last week, Russia's Defense Ministry said it had closed off navigation in parts of the Black Sea to foreign military and other official vessels from mid-April until the end of October. The move was condemned by the West.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called it "yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow's ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine," and "particularly troubling amid credible reports of Russian troop buildup in occupied Crimea and around Ukraine's borders."
Two British warships were to set sail for the Black Sea in May, The Sunday Times newspaper reported on Tuesday, citing senior U.K. naval sources. The deployment is meant to show solidarity with Ukraine and Britain's NATO allies, the newspaper reported.
According to the report, one Type 45 destroyer armed with anti-aircraft missiles and an anti-submarine Type 23 frigate will detach from the Royal Navy's carrier task group in the Mediterranean and sail through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea. RAF F-35B Lightning stealth jets and Merlin submarine-hunting helicopters will stand ready on the task group's flagship, the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, the newspaper said.
Turkey's government announced last week that the U.S. was planning to deploy two warships to the Black Sea, but then later said the Pentagon had cancelled the deployment. U.S. officials never confirmed nor denied that the deployment had been ordered, but a Pentagon spokesman noted that U.S. vessels have operated previously in the international waters of the Black Sea.
U.S. ambassador leaves
U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan said he would travel back to Washington this week for consultations after Russia's Foreign Ministry suggested he do so amid a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
"I believe it is important for me to speak directly with my new colleagues in the Biden administration in Washington about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia," he said in remarks published by the embassy in Moscow.
Sullivan, a Trump appointee, said he intended to come back to Moscow in the coming weeks, before any meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin.
His departure follows Russia's response to the latest round of U.S. sanctions, announced last week, which included the expulsion of 10 American diplomats from Russia and a ban on the U.S. Embassy hiring any Russian nationals as staff.
Russia's Ambassador to the U.S. has been back in Moscow for a month, after being recalled by the Foreign Ministry for consultations.