Robert HARNEIS -TDO- (FRANCE)- More than 1,200 military personnel, four warships and numerous aircraft took part in the four-nation Barents Sea mission led by the British Navy. Unlike in the previous exercise in May a Norwegian ship took part.
A British Navy statement read “The High North is witnessing a change in its security environment and represents a key area of interest for the UK. Recent Russian attempts to control freedom of access and navigation in the region are of concern to the UK and its partners”.
This is the first time since the 1990s that NATO surface warships have conducted maritime security operations inside the Russian exclusive economic zone in the Barents Sea without participating Russian Northern Fleet ships.
According to the British Daily Telegraph, Typhoon fighters have never before operated so far north in the Arctic. The RAF fighter jets conducted an air defense exercise to improve integration between air and maritime assets.
The Russian newspaper Izvestia reports the NATO navy group is operating about 200 kilometers from the Kola Peninsula. Lt. Col. Ivar Moen, a spokesperson with the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, said earlier this week the area of sailing would be off the coast of Finnmark and the Fisherman Peninsula.
In May, the U.S. and U.K. warships operated in the western sector of the Barents Sea, while the four-nation mission this week sailed further east, closer to Russia’s strategically important naval bases.
The four surface warships in the NATO group were the Norwegian frigate KNM Thor Heyerdahl, the U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Ross, the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Sutherland and the auxiliary RFA Tidespring.
The Barents Sea is the Russian Northern Fleet’s main exercise area and route to the North-Atlantic.
British Defense Secretary, Ben Wallace, said the consequences of climate change are changing the north. “It is vital to preserve freedom of navigation when melting ice caps are creating new shipping lanes and increasing the risk of states looking to militarize and monopolize international borders”.
He added: “The UK is the closest neighbor to the Arctic states. In addition to preserving UK interests we have a responsibility to support our Arctic allies such as Norway to preserve the security and stability of the region.”
The Royal Navy said in a statement this week, the operation is aimed “to maintain peace in the region” adding “The UK, US, Denmark and Norway are working together to boost readiness to operate in the High North and increase resilience in an area which is vital to UK interests.”
A U.S. 6th Fleet statement of September 7 underlined the importance of conducting sustained operations in vital waterways in the Arctic.
Prior to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Norwegian frigates made several friendship port calls to Severomorsk, the main naval base of the Northern Fleet.
Today, not only is Norway participating with a navy frigate, it also sails east of the Norwegian economic zone in the Barents Sea.
This is a significant change in Norway’s stance. In July the Head of Norway’s Joint Head Quarters, Rune Jakobsen told the newspaper VG, “Norway does not want to provoke Russia,” He added: “We must maintain low tensions in the north. If we operate together with American forces or other allied forces outside the Russian submarine bases on Kola, it will contribute to higher tensions.”
Moscow has voiced concerns that the current increase in NATO sailings in the adjacent waters to Norway as part of the American anti-ballistic missile defense training. The USS Ross has the capability to function as part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System.
In an unusual move, the Russian navy this August and September sailed two corvettes from the Baltic Sea, via the inland waterways, to the White Sea and the Barents Sea.
By sailing smaller warships with the new long-range Calibr navy missile via the inner waterways, Russia proves it can counter threats in one sea or the other. These are the same type of vessel that fired Calibr missiles from the Caspian Sea into Syria in 2015.