By Stefan J. Bos
Britain's HMS Echo crew have been preparing for a particular task in Ukraine's port of Odessa: Showing Russia that they continue to navigate the Black Sea after Russia seized three ships belonging to Ukraine's navy and their crews.
The standoff comes amid broader tensions between the two neighbors following Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Russia has also been accused of supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons and troops, charges Moscow denies.
Britain's Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, told reporters while visiting the warship, that Britain wants to support Ukraine in what he views as increased Russian aggression. "The reason as I touched upon the HMS Echo carrier here is that we first want to demonstrate that solidarity that we have with Ukraine and the fact that Ukraine doesn't stand alone," he explained.
“We also want to demonstrate our rights to be able to come to ports such as Odessa, for freedom of navigation, for freedom for navies to be able to operate in the Black Sea," Williamson added. "This isn’t Russia’s sea, this is an international sea."
The British vessel will be followed by other warships as part of a more constant British presence. It comes amid efforts by the Western NATO military alliance to step up operations in the Black Sea with increased warship patrols.
HMS Echo is not expected to sail through the Kerch Strait near Crimea - close to where the Russian Navy rammed, shot at and seized the three Ukrainian Navy vessels in November.
As part of his pre-Christmas visit, Defense Secretary Williamson families of the 24 Ukrainian crew members who are still being held by Russia after the and are now awaiting trial in Moscow.
Moscow has denied wrongdoing. And it says the British Royal Navy vessel - which is used to collect data about the ocean - is a spy ship.