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Russia conducts live fire drill in Black Sea amid rising tensions with Ukraine, NATO

This handout photo released April 22, 2021, by Russia's Defense Ministry, shows Russian navy ships preparing to unload troops during drills in Crimea.

Russia has conducted a live fire naval drill in the Black Sea amid escalating tensions with Ukraine and NATO countries in the strategic area.

Russia's Black Sea fleet said in a statement carried by the Interfax news agency on Thursday that Russian warships conducted a live fire training exercise in the Black Sea, with the crews of two large landing ships firing at sea and air targets.

The drill came two days after Russia tested its air defense systems in the Crimean Peninsula, as Ukraine, the US, and their NATO allies kicked off war games in the strategic sea.

The naval exercise, dubbed Sea Breeze 2021, will last two weeks and involves about 5,000 military personnel from NATO and other allies, and around 30 ships and 40 aircraft, with US missile destroyer USS Ross and the US Marine Corps taking part.

Moscow had called for the cancellation of the Sea Breeze exercise before it began, with the Russian defense ministry stressing that it would react to safeguard national security if necessary.

The Interfax also cited Russia's defense ministry as saying in a separate statement on Thursday that it was tracking an Italian navy frigate after it entered the Black Sea earlier in the day.

The developments follow a spike in tensions between NATO and Moscow after a British Royal Navy destroyer violated Russian territorial waters off Crimea and was warned off by jets and a coast guard vessel.

Last week, Russia's Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) stopped a violation of the state border by the British destroyer HMS Defender off the coast of the Crimean Peninsula.

The British military vessel ventured three kilometers into Russian territorial waters, prompting a Russian border guard patrol ship to fire warning shots and a Sukhoi-24M bomber to drop bombs in front of the destroyer. The HMS Defender left the waters following the warning maneuvers.

Russia slammed the trespassing by the British destroyer HMS Defender as a crude violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and called on London to investigate the actions of the destroyer's crew members.

Russia's permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, said on Tuesday that any provocative action near Russia's territorial waters in the strategic Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula would be testing the country’s red-lines and a "risky experiment" aimed at making the regional atmosphere more tense.

Crimea declared independence from Ukraine on March 17, 2014, and formally applied to become part of Russia following a referendum, in which 96.8 percent of participants voted in favor of the move, which plunged relations between Moscow and the West into a free fall.

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