Since the end of the Cold War, United States warships have not been seen in the Barents Sea. Now, however, the United States Navy and its ally, the UK Royal Marine, have returned. What was officially called an effort “to assert freedom of navigation and demonstrate seamless integration among allies” was primarily a message for Russia and the Kremlin’s activity in the region, which has increased considerably.
US Warships in the Barents Sea
For the first time in more than three decades, the United States Navy has operated in the Barents Sea which is divided between Norway and Russia. Four ships of the United States Navy, together with a British ship of the Royal Navy, passed through the Barents Sea north of Russia on Monday, the US Navy confirmed. According to the Navy, the operation was conducted to “assert freedom of navigation and demonstrate seamless integration among allies” in the geopolitically significant region.
The Kremlin had been informed in advance, on May 1, of the operation to avoid any confrontation with Russian forces due to any potential misunderstandings.
The operation involved three destroyers with guided missiles, a United States Navy escort, and a British frigate. Among them were the USS Donald Cook, the USS Porter, USS Roosevelt, plus the escort ship USNS Supply, while the Royal Navy had sent the HMS Kent.
Building US Military Readiness in the Arctic
Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti, commander of the 6th U.S. Fleet, stated that in these challenging times, it was more important than ever that one maintained operations across Europe while taking prudent measures to protect the health and security of one’s armed forces. Moreover, the United States and its allies would continue to promote regional security and stability, while building trust and strengthening the foundations for readiness in the Arctic region, Franchetti added.
In recent years, territorial disputes over parts of the Arctic have mounted, primarily due to deposits of raw materials such as gas, which lie below the ice cap melting as a result of climate change. The latter could result in permanent north-west and north-east passage opening from Asia to America and Europe, which could significantly shorten the transport route. In addition, Russia, which has always claimed parts of the Arctic, seeks to charge service fees for any potential opening and has thus been attempting to establish a strong military presence in recent years, to which neighboring countries, some of these are NATO states, have communicated concerns.
Kremlin vs. Washington
Due to the geopolitical relevance in the region, the Kremlin has also significantly increased its activities in the Arctic. As part of the Russian quest for the Arctic, abandoned bases from the Soviet era have been reactivated, while additional bases were built, and existing ones were expanded and modernized. Moreover, Russia has undertaken concerted efforts “to establish a network of air defense and coastal missile systems, early warning radars, rescue centers, and a variety of sensors,” according to a Pentagon report in 2019.
According to the Russian Navy, 3,000 patrol days of Russian submarines were reached in the region by 2016, which is identical to the number of patrol days during the Cold War. In turn, NATO and particularly the United States have been reestablishing its presence in the region also, which has observers believing that a new Cold War is in the making, if not already underway.
Since then, Russian activity and posturing have increased drastically. United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Monday at a Brookings Institute video conference that Russia had recently put US air defense operations in the Arctic and Alaska to the test several times. One example is an incident on March 10, when two Russian military planes came close to the Alaska coast but did not enter US airspace.