Earlier this month, the U.S. kicked off the annual BALTOPS military exercises in the Baltic Sea. The BALTOPS is an annual exercise held by United Sates Naval Forces Europe. The exercises normally include naval training, search and rescue exercises, radar testing and tracking, maritime security, and military trials. This year, the U.S. is joined by 19 countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden. Similar to many NATO naval exercises, the BALTOPS is used for training purposes, demonstration of military capability, and to display the U.S.’s right of mobility in international waters. This show of force in the Baltic Sea is significant as Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave will be in close proximity. The BALTOPS exercises have occurred for 49 consecutive years beginning and continuing throughout the Cold War. From the 7th to the 16th of this month (June), Russia will have a front row seat.
Russia observes U.S. and NATO exercises, including the BALTOPS, to gain further intelligence on U.S. and NATO military capabilities. Russia’s Baltic fleet has closely monitored the movements and maneuvers in the Baltic. Furthermore, in response to this year’s drills, Russia conducted exercises of their own in the Kaliningrad region, including sending bombers to conduct test strikes on ground targets and testing of air defense systems. Despite using the U.S.-led BALTOPS to conduct intelligence gathering and military exercises, Russian officials have called the BALTOPS exercises “provocative”. Russia views U.S. and NATO presence in the Baltic Sea as a threat to their militarized exclave in the Baltic. Rather than responding directly to Russia’s accusations that the BALTOPS exercises are provocative in nature, U.S. Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti said “the BALTOPS provides opportunity for NATO and partner nations to operate together, sharing best practices to improve real world operations.” Both sides utilize every opportunity to conduct exercises and demonstrate capability close to each other’s territory, which creates a risk of escalation.
The BALTOPS exercises held in such close proximity to Russian territory is nothing new. Throughout 2019 and the first half of 2020, either side conducted military drills in increasingly close proximity to borders or sovereign airspace. In March of this year, the U.S. was conducting training and testing exercises in Alaska, known as ICEX, to develop submarine tactics and capability. Russian aircraft were intercepted nearing Alaskan airspace and detoured by NORAD forces. Again, earlier this year Russian ships and aircraft were intercepted nearing Norwegian territory by the Norwegians and British. In 2019, the U.S. conducted B-2 stealth bomber flights into the far north edging closer to Russian territory for the first time since the Cold War. Although these instances have not resulted in any direct military action, experts warn the frequency and proximity escalate the threat of force. The Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington based think-tank focused on Central and Eastern Europe, noted that training exercises and military buildup could enable provocative action. Subsequent action could potentially lead to a direct use of force, which could quickly spiral into a major conflict.