Snow groomers from the 3rd Battalion, 6th U.S. Marine Regiment, are deployed by Royal Netherlands Navy landing craft while participating in the international military exercise Cold Response 22 in Sandy Beach, Norway, March 21, 2022. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP
Until the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the Baltic Sea and the Arctic remained relatively secondary areas of interest for most Western personnel. But as the shockwave of the conflict spreads, the Far North – of which Russia is a key neighbor – is increasingly viewed as a potential spillover region. A French officer sums it up as a “fugitive zone”. Especially since the start of the NATO accession process for Finland and Sweden at the end of June.
On Monday, August 15, Russia accused a British RC-135 spy plane of violating its airspace near Murmansk, where the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet is based, and dispatched a MIG-31 interceptor to rout it. An event described by Moscow as a “deliberate provocation” but denied by London.
Vigilance has already been heightened after the traditional Russian naval festival was held on July 31, as it does every year, on the Neva River in Saint Petersburg, Vladimir Putin’s birthplace on the Baltic Sea coast. This large military parade is often the occasion for demonstrations of power on the part of Moscow, even if this year part of the celebrations that were supposed to take place in Sevastopol in Crimea, the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, have been canceled due to the war.
Also read: NATO memberships: “For Finland and Sweden, Russia’s attack on Ukraine sent a shock wave”
While the United Kingdom became the first country to announce a “new strategy” for the Far North in late March, the Royal Navy practiced two Russian submarines surrendering to this parade along the Norwegian coast on 16 and 19 July. A presence they were happy to reveal when they emerged, just across from Bergen, very close to the Royal Norwegian Navy’s main base, the largest in the Nordic countries.
One of those structures, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SNLE), the Severodvinsk, has been identified as the one that conducted a feared test of a new cruise missile in the Barents Sea in the fall of 2021, presented by the Russians as “hypersonic” and the Baptized Tsirkon. For the Severodvinsk and her accompanying submarine, both nuclear-powered and Yassen-class, this was their first voyage to the Baltic Sea, according to the Barents Observer website.
Arctic Council activities suspended
This cat-and-mouse game between Russians and Westerners has been repeated in the frigid waters of the Arctic and Baltic Seas for several years. Many Russian planes flirt with neighboring countries’ air control zone. Russia also conducts missile tests there, without necessarily complying with advance warning measures to avoid accidents.
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