US ship en route to tense Black Sea

US ship en route to tense Black Sea

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The Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock-landing ship USS Fort McHenry transits the Straits of Messina, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019 en route to the Black Sea (U.S. Navy photo by Chris Roys)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is sending a ship into the Black Sea this week, the first U.S. military exercise in the region since Russia seized Ukrainian ships and seamen last November.

USS Fort McHenry is on a regularly scheduled Black Sea sailing, the Navy said. It is considered a defensive vessel.

The sailing will be conducted under what the Pentagon identifies as a “freedom of navigation operation” — or FONOP in Pentagon parlance. That tactic is used to sail in waters considered international — more than 12 nautical miles from shore — but which are claimed by one or more nations. Under international maritime law, national sovereignty over water ends at 12 nautical miles.

“We routinely operate in the Black Sea consistent with international law and the Montreux Convention and will continue to do so,” Cmdr. Kyle Raines, 6th Fleet spokesperson, said in a statement. “We also continue our call for Ukraine and Russia to seek a diplomatic resolution to their dispute.”

The 6th fleet is based in Naples, Italy.

In November, Russia fired upon and seized three Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea, shutting down access to the Sea of Azov. That is the primary shipping route for supplies into Ukraine. That action violated a 2003 bilateral treaty that granted Ukraine and Russia exclusive rights to sail their ships in and out at will.

Prior to Fort McHenry’s sailing, the State Department secured permission from Turkey to allow the transit. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, governments must secure permission from Turkey 15 days before seeking to enter the Bosporus Straits, the only route into the Black Sea from the Mediterranean Sea.

The last U.S. vessel to enter the Black Sea was USS Carey, in August, Pentagon officials said.

In December, the British warship HMS Echo arrived in Ukraine’s Black Sea port. British Defense Minister Gavin Williamson called that port visit as “sending a message” to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

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