Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised his defense minister in the wee hours of Thursday morning last week with an order for surprise military drills to test battle readiness in the Black Sea. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was awakened at 4:00 a.m. local time with sealed orders to activate 7,000 troops, 36 ships, up to 20 fighter jets and helicopters and 50 pieces of artillery.
Aviation, paratroopers and special forces are involved in the exercises, which were launched immediately according to Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said “We are talking about major exercises, intended as a check,” according to Russian news agencies.
“According to international practice, exercises involving up to 7,000 people do not require us to inform our partners in advance,” Peskov noted. He added that the drills would take place on three military test ranges on Russian territory and are expected to last about a week.
Russia has been heavily involved in protecting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad from international ire at the United Nations Security Council, but as Assad's grip on power has increasingly weakened, and fragmented rebel forces gain control over more territory in the country, Moscow has begun to quietly evacuate its citizens from Damascus and surrounds. Likewise Putin has joined discussions over what may become of Syria's lethal arsenal of chemical weapons of mass destruction, a rising concern in the international community.
The Black Sea is a strategic waterway bounded by Europe, Anatolia and the Caucasus, and connects to the Atlantic Ocean via the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas and two straits known as the Turkish Straits – the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. The Bosphorus Strait, which flows through the middle of Turkey, connects it to the Sea of Marmara. The Strait of the Dardanelles connects that sea to the Aegean Sea region of the Mediterranean, which separate eastern Europe and western Asia. Countries with shoreline along the Black Sea include Turkey, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania, in addition to Russia.
Late last year Turkey requested -- and received -- authorization to deploy a number of batteries of Patriot missile defense systems along its border with Syria. The batteries, contributed by NATO allies that included the United States, were installed in January 2013.