The US is working to bolster Ukraine's navy, a force that was decimated by Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014, an effort that comes as Moscow strengthens its own forces in the region in a buildup that some officials see as a threat to NATO's southeastern flank.
The ramped up effort to help Ukraine includes a military exercise that begun Monday called "Sea Breeze," which is taking place days after Russia launched major military drills in the region involving nearly 150,000 troops, dueling shows of force that underscore the tensions between NATO and Moscow.
That tension has been further fueled in recent days as the US has accused Moscow of a wide range of activities, including cyber-attacks on organizations involved in coronavirus vaccine development and using Russian mercenaries to destabilize Libya. Reports that Russian operatives offered cash incentives to Taliban-linked militants to target US troops in Afghanistan have further highlighted the tense relationship.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions against a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the leader of the Russian Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, for what Pompeo said were Kadyrov's "gross human rights violations, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances."
Some 80% of Ukraine's Navy was captured by Russia when its forces seized the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 with Moscow later annexing the territory, leaving Kiev with only a single frigate.
Putin paid a visit to occupied Crimea Monday, touring a naval shipyard in Kerch. After observing the keel laying for a new assault ship, Putin addressed the shipyard workers, telling them that Russia "will continue to focus on a modern and combat-ready Navy, and to build ships fitted out with advanced weapons and equipment."
"The new ships will have advanced weapons, controls and communication systems. They will significantly strengthen the combat potential of the Navy and enhance its strategic capabilities," Putin said.
Ukraine rebuilding Navy from scratch
As a result of Russia's seizure of the Ukrainian fleet and naval headquarters in Crimea, Ukraine had to basically rebuild its Navy from scratch and the US has sought to help that process. The focus of that effort has been on smaller ships that operate closer to shore, giving Ukraine the ability to control its littoral waters, the near shore.
The US has provided two retired Island-class US Coast Guard cutters and new Mark VI patrol boats which are seen as ideal when it comes to operating in the shallow waters of the Sea of Azov.
A US defense official told CNN that Kiev is in the process of acquiring three more Island Class Coast Guard cutters with Ukraine's government paying for the retrofitting of the mothballed ships which are being transferred as part of the excess defense articles program.
The Pentagon recently announced plans to provide Kiev with several Mark VI patrol boats and the State department also recently approved the sale of 16 additional patrol boats to Ukraine, six of which will be paid for through a US assistance program with the remainder being purchased using Ukraine's own defense funds.
While the patrol boats come armed with remote controlled cannons, US defense officials tell CNN that the US is actively considering arming the vessels with even more fire power, shipborne missiles capable of targeting enemy warships.
"We are interested in arming their patrol boats with missiles," a US defense official told CNN.
The enhanced armaments are seen as particularly important given Ukraine's tensions with Russia in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
In 2018, Russian forces seized three Ukrainian vessels and captured 24 Ukrainian sailors following a crash in the Kerch Strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and is the sole access route for ships traveling to Ukraine's eastern port cities.
The Sea of Azov has a maximum depth of only 14 meters and is therefore much too shallow for most warships to operate in, making it the ideal environment for the Mark VI-type patrol boats to operate.
The missiles are "not designed to be provocative, it's just designed to be defensive in nature so that those ships can defend themselves should something like a Kerch Strait incident happen again," the defense official said.
Ukraine developing missiles
Ukraine is also pursuing the development of an anti-ship missile of its own, the indigenous developed Neptune cruise missile, a larger weapon which can be fired from shore but would likely be too large for the US-supplied ships.
Rear Adm. Oleksii Neizhpapa, the commander of Ukraine's Naval Forces, told reporters on Monday that acquiring anti-ship missiles was a top priority for his country's military.
US officials have long-accused Russia of building up its military forces in Crimea, stationing additional aircraft, warships, and missiles that can threaten countries in the region, making US efforts to strengthen allies in the region more imperative.
American military advisers are also advising Ukrainian naval officials on how to retain and recruit navy personnel.
"They are moving from what essentially was an old Soviet mandatory service model to an entirely volunteer based western model and that's taken some time, they've had to work through that," the US defense official told CNN.
Training and exercises are also seen as critical to helping bolster Ukraine's navy and exercise Sea Breeze which takes place in the Black Sea is seen as a critical component.
This year's iteration of the exercise was considerably scaled back due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus but will still involve forces from eight countries, including the US and Ukraine, as well 19 aircraft and 26 ships including the Arleigh Burke class destroyer the USS Porter which entered the Black Sea over the weekend.
"This exercise is necessary to support the stability in our region," Neizhpapa said.
Meanwhile, Russia also launched a major series of military drills this month, a snap inspection exercise that according to Russia's Defense Ministry was ordered by Putin involving some 150,000 Russian troops, 400 aircraft and 100 warships.
Russia said the drills were focused on counter terrorism and would concentrate on Russia's southwest, as well as the Black and Caspian seas.
Despite the two major exercises, US officials expressed confidence that both forces will be able to operate safely.
"The Russians have every right to exercise their forces and train as we do and I doubt that we will have any interaction at all and if we do I'm sure it will be professional," US Navy Vice Adm. Eugene Black said Monday.
While rarely generating headlines the war between Kiev and Russian-backed forces in Ukraine's east continues to remain violent, with dozens of Ukrainian military personnel being killed and wounded in the last week according to Ukraine's foreign minister.