WASHINGTON, April 5. /TASS/. Foreign ministers of NATO member-states agreed on Thursday to expand surveillance operations in the Black Sea and also to increase the number of drills in the region jointly with Ukraine and Georgia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Thursday, commenting on the alliance’s Washington meeting.
"We are stepping up our efforts in the Black Sea or the Black Sea region. We just agreed the package on more surveillance exercises and all the issues which we strongly believe are relevant for the Black Sea region and of course also work with our partners Georgia and Ukraine," Stoltenberg stressed, noting that NATO is patrolling the region’s airspace.
According to Stoltenberg, the alliance is working with its "close partners" in the region - Georgia and Ukraine. "Now as we speak one of NATO’s naval standing groups is deployed in the Black Sea and is actually exercising in both with Georgian and Ukrainian naval forces. This shows that NATO has increased its presence in the Black Sea region with more naval presence," he said, adding that the alliance is strengthening its cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine.
The NATO chief did not mention the alliance’s plans to guarantee the passage of Ukraine’s vessels through the Kerch Strait, what US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison had said earlier.
Kerch Strait standoff
On November 25, 2018 three warships of the Ukrainian Navy violated the rules of passage through Russia's territorial waters while en route from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea. The Russian side had to use weapons to compel the ships to stop. Three Ukrainian servicemen were lightly wounded. They received medical assistance. The ships were detained and escorted to the port of Kerch. A criminal case was launched on border violation charges.
Moscow described the incident as a provocation. The Ukrainian authorities declared martial law. The EU and NATO called for de-escalation of the situation. A number of countries, including the United States, criticized Russia and called for releasing the Ukrainian sailors.
Twenty-four Ukrainian sailors were arrested and taken to a Moscow pre-trial detention center. They have been charged with illegally crossing Russia’s state border, and face up to six years in jail if found guilty. Earlier, Moscow’s Lefortovo court extended their arrest until April 24.