Sea Breeze 2008, a vast NATO military exercise begins on Monday in Ukraine`s Odessa region, the Crimea, and Black Sea coastal regions.

Over 1,000 service members from 15 countries will take part in airborne and amphibious exercises under the auspices of NATO`s Partnership for Peace programme, with most participants coming from the United States and Ukraine. The exercise will be held until July 26. Fifteen Ukrainian ships, four aircraft, ten helicopters and 500 service personnel will take part in the military exercises.

According to The World Next Week, in preparation for Sea Breeze, an Odessa court has banned both pro- and anti-exercise demonstrations through the end of July.  The step is unusual in post-`Orange Revolution` Ukraine, because Kyiv’s often chaotic -- but generally democratic -- government no longer quashes public gatherings and political demonstrations as a matter of course.

However, Kyiv is particularly wary of protests surrounding Sea Breeze, which forced the exercise`s cancellation two years ago in an embarrassing setback for President Viktor Yushchenko, who had championed the event.  Sea Breeze has since been linked to Yushchenko`s NATO ambitions, a goal that is not supported by the majority of the Ukrainian public.

Yet even Ukrainian leaders who are generally regarded as Moscow-friendly, like former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, support Sea Breeze.  It provides Ukrainian soldiers and sailors with sorely needed training opportunities, and allows the military leadership to show off tangible improvements in professionalism and interoperability.  Sea Breeze, like the rest of Ukraine`s robust military cooperation with the West, will continue regardless of whether Ukraine accedes to NATO any time soon.  Yet convincing average Ukrainians of the exercise`s value -- and separating it from the politically charged question of Ukraine`s NATO accession -- may prove a much more difficult task.