NATO and Russia: Maneuvers and countermaneuvers on the Baltic Sea

Whenever NATO has run exercises on the Baltic Sea, Russia's activities have been in the background. But since the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in particular, the alliance has paid special attention to its eastern flank. NATO demonstrates this with the protection of the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — all three of which were former Soviet republics. In recent years, incidents have repeatedly occurred over the Baltic Sea in which NATO jets intercepted or escorted Russian military aircraft.

"Russia is a Baltic nation and we respect that," Andrew Lewis, vice-admiral and commander of the US 2nd Fleet, told DW. "However, the Baltic Sea and the airspace above it are international territories. We have a right to use them in accordance with international standards."

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First European deployment for new US fleet

This time the US 2nd Fleet is in charge of the annual NATO naval exercise BALTOPS, which lasts until June 21. The exercise has been carried out for more than 40 years. According to NATO, 16 nations as well as bordering states Sweden and Finland participate. A total of around 8,600 soldiers are involved, distributed across 50 ships, two submarines and 40 aircraft, and a helicopter carrier that accompanies Juan Carlos I, the flagship of the Spanish navy. According to NATO, the whole range is practiced: air defense, response to destruction of mines and submarines, and defense against attacks by "enemy ships."

The extent of the exercise is comparable to that of previous years, but the participation of the 2nd Fleet is unusual. The fleet operates in the North Atlantic and became known during the Cold War for several maneuvers, including the blockade during the Cuban missile crisis. In 2011 the 2nd Fleet was disbanded because at the time, the Obama administration considered the danger from Russia to be low.

The fleet was revived in 2018 "in response to Russia's growing naval activity in the Atlantic," NATO states. BALTOPS is the first deployment of the new US fleet in Europe. "The 2nd Fleet was re-established as a response to the changing global security environment," said Lewis. "It was not specifically because of a country." He added that there were "competitors on the world stage, including Russia and China."

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Russia trains missile strike on ship

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Moscow's reaction to BALTOPS is strongly reminiscent of the Cold War era. Soldiers from five NATO member countries practiced landing on the Estonian island of Saaremaa on Wednesday. On the same day, the Russian navy trained for the sinking of an "enemy" submarine in the Baltic Sea. In the neighboring Russian exclave Kaliningrad, a missile strike on "enemy" ships was also simulated.

It seems that the NATO military exercise is not only observed by Moscow, but also mirrored with a Russian exercise in turn. However, with seven warships on the Russian side, significantly fewer forces are involved.

According to Russian data, there has already been one incident. On Monday a Russian Su-27 fighter jet supposedly intercepted US and Swedish reconnaissance planes over the Baltic Sea.

Vice Adm. Lewis did not rule out a potential "interaction" between NATO and Russia in the North Atlantic, but said he is hoping for "professional management."

"We expect deterrence and peaceful coexistence," he said.

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US announces interest in the Arctic

This apparently also applies to the Arctic, another region in which Russia is increasingly reporting claims and expanding its armed forces.

The goal is "to learn as much as possible about an operation in the Arctic," Lewis said.

The Arctic is a region with which the US is just as familiar as Russia or Norway, Lewis said, adding that they want to ensure that the Arctic remains an area in which international maritime law is not challenged.