The Navy has dispatched a cruiser to the Black Sea in the latest sign that Washington is ramping up pressure on the Kremlin's power play in Ukraine ahead of a disputed referendum.
The cruiser Vella Gulf is headed to the Black Sea as violence and uncertainty continues in Ukraine, 6th Fleet announced Thursday.
The cruiser will enter the area Friday 'to promote peace and stability in the region,' according to the news release a markedly sharper tone than previous releases.
The announcement comes four days before the hotly disputed referendum in eastern Ukraine aimed at breaking off from Kiev. The U.S., its European allies and Russia have all said they will not recognize the results of the referendum.
Separatists in eastern Ukraine have increasingly clashed with government forces, leading to the death of more than 125 people, according to United Nations tallies.
This is the third ship to be dispatched to the region since the increase in tensions the destroyers Truxtun and Donald Cook have both been in the Black Sea, as has the frigate Taylor.
The choice to send a cruiser ups the firepower in the area. The cruiser carries two 5-inch deck guns and two full arrays of missile launchers, and is skippered by an O-6.
The Navy's top officer said Wednesday that the Russian navy has been paying close attention to U.S. ships in the Black Sea.
'Our ships in the Black Sea have been shadowed, typically by a warship and by an intelligence ship, but they've been typically shadowed,' Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said during a meeting with reporters. 'There have been conversations, they've been professional. The shadowing has been at a standoff of two, five, maybe seven miles, depending on visibility. The interactions have been, [the] vast majority, professional.'
Greenert said that interactions between the two navies have generally adhered to Cold War-era doctrines for encounters between the two forces. The exception: An April incident when a Russian fighter made several low-altitude flybys over the Donald Cook.
'By and large, they have been good, safe mariners,' he said.