The annual BALTOPS naval exercise has kicked off on the Baltic Sea, with the NATO nations holding a show of strength in the backdrop of the war between Russia and Ukraine.
More than 7,000 sailors from 16 nations participated in the exercise that started on Sunday, the Associated Press reported. Significantly, sailors from Finland and Sweden, which are planning to join the western alliance against Russia, also participated in the drills.
'Seizing the Chance'
Nato said it is "seizing the chance in an unpredictable world to enhance its joint force resilience and strength" in an oblique reference to Stockholm and Helsinki's bid to join the alliance despite the dire warning issued by Russia against such a move.
"It is important for us, the United States, and the other NATO countries to show solidarity with both Finland and Sweden in this exercise," U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said ahead of the massive drill, which was conducted just 300 miles away from Russia's Baltic Sea fleet, which is based in Kaliningrad.
As many as 45 ships and 75 aircraft took part in the naval exercise. In a direct show of support to Sweden, the US sailed its huge 843-foot warship USS Kearsarge to Stockholm for the drill.
'Message to the World'
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said the drill was a message to the world. She said the exercise shows that U.S. President Joe Biden's security assurances are "actually followed with concrete action ... and for this we are very very grateful."
Earlier last month, Russia issued a stern warning against Finland and Sweden over the move to join the NATO military alliance. Moscow said it was a serious mistake and that the Scandinavian countries will have to face consequences.
"This is another grave mistake with far-reaching consequences. The general level of military tensions will increase .. It is a pity that common sense is being sacrificed for some phantom ideas about what should be done in the current situation," Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to Moscow Times.
Russia also suggested that it will be forced to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on its border with Europe, even as these two nations are abandoning decades-old neutrality.
If Finland and Sweden join NATO, the strength of the western security bloc will go up from 30 to 32, and will be a morale booster for the US, which has so far failed to stop the Russian war in Ukraine.
For Russia, the move will be unacceptable as the core reason for their Ukraine campaign is the opposition to NATO expansionism. Ukraine's refusal to guarantee that it will not join the US-led security alliance, coupled with other geo-strategic reasons forced President Vladimir Putin to launch the attack on Ukraine in February.
Though the annual BALTOPS naval exercise is not seen as a response to any specific threat, the timing of the event and the fact that Finland and Sweden's participation is highlighted as a strategic point, will rankle nerves in Russia.
The exercise has been held since 1972, and Finland and Sweden have participated in the exercise earlier as well. The naval exercise will conclude in the German port of Kiel on June 17.