Trailed by a Russian flotilla, four U.S. Navy ships and a British vessel sailed into the frigid Arctic waters of the Barents Sea on Monday, marking the first such operation since the Cold War and shining a fresh spotlight on a rapidly growing power struggle at the top of the world.
Navy officials cast the exercise as necessary to ensure that the U.S. military stays ready to conduct operations in a host of different climates, including the extreme weather above the Arctic Circle. But the Trump administration also has made no secret of the fact that it intends to push back on other nations — chiefly Russia, but also an increasingly emboldened and ambitious China — that seek to lay claim to strategically vital territory in the Arctic.
Predictably, Moscow objected to Monday’s joint U.S.-U.K. mission. Russian media reported that the nation’s Northern Fleet actively monitored the American and British ships sailing through the Barents Sea, which lies between Russia’s northwestern coast and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.
There were no reports Monday of close interactions between Russian and American ships, nor was there any major public outcry from top Russian officials. But by declaring it was keeping a watchful eye on the operation, Moscow sent a clear message that it views such territory in the Arctic as its own.
U.S. military officials said they notified Russia of the operation on May 1 to ensure there was no “inadvertent escalation.”
“In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that we maintain our steady drumbeat of operations across the European theater, while taking prudent measures to protect the health of our force,” Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet, said in a statement “We remain committed to promoting regional security and stability, while building trust and reinforcing a foundation of Arctic readiness.”
Military analysts warn that the U.S. risks falling badly behind in the race of resources and trade routes in the Arctic, with many regions now becoming more accessible as the average temperatures creep up.
In one sign of the provocative nature of the U.S. Navy mission, Norwegian officials said they supported the flotilla but did not allow any Norwegian sailors to take part, the Barents Observer reported.
The U.S. has not conducted operations in the Barents Sea since the mid-1980s, and Navy officials said they made the decision to resume operations because “allied and partner navies must remain proficient in all operating environments to ensure the continued security and access to the seas.”
The American vessels also recently completed a naval anti-submarine warfare exercise in the Norwegian Sea, military officials said, underscoring the broad U.S. policy to ensure no nation — particularly Russia — can dominate the region.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin has been clear about his ambitions there. Speaking at an Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg last year, Mr. Putin said Russia will build new ports in the region and expand its icebreaker fleet.
“This is a realistic, well-calculated and concrete task,” he said. “We need to make the northern sea route safe and commercially feasible.”
Icebreakers are a crucial piece of military equipment in the Arctic. The U.S. currently has only two icebreakers in operation, though the Pentagon is racing to build more.
Russia reportedly has as many as 40 icebreakers in its fleet. Its largest fleet, the Northern Fleet, uses the sea as its access to the North Atlantic via the Barents Sea for its surface ships and submarines.
For the Trump administration, Monday’s exercise is a concrete move to back up its longstanding policy to counter Russia. Speaking at a meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council last May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Moscow clearly intends to use its military might to exert greater control over the area.
“Moscow already illegally demands that other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply,” Mr. Pompeo said. “These provocative actions are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior in the Arctic. Russia is already leaving snow prints in the form of army boots.”