Russian ships and fighter jets made their presence known during the opening days of a 17-nation strong NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea by shadowing alliance ship movements and buzzing aircraft over ship formations.
"During our formations shortly after we left port, we had some company from Russian ships shadowing us, and about mid-afternoon we were overflown by two Russian jets. They looked like Su-24s," U.S. 6th Fleet commander, Vice Adm. James Foggo, told reporters June 8. "They made a few passes and then a couple of Russian Corvettes came up on either side of the formation as we were conducting our exercises -- nothing untoward, just showing interest and showing that they know we are here."
Foggo did not refer to the Russian presence as a provocation but rather preferred to explain it as an opportunity to show Russia NATO strength and solidarity.
"This is a good thing because we are broadcasting our message of community and solidarity in the alliance and maintaining security in the Baltic Sea," he said.
Foggo explained that NATO alliance members made several attempt to communicate with Russian forces near the exercise but did not receive any response.
Rear Adm. Tim Lowe of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy, Deputy Commander of Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, told reporters that the Russian appearance strengthened solidarity for the NATO alliance
"We are demonstrating the strength of the alliance. We're showing how well we can work together. We would hope they (Russians) would perform as professionally as we have been doing," he said.
As for their actions, the Russian military has been far less open and transparent than NATO forces, Foggo added.
The BALTOPS exercise, slated to take place through June 20, is an annually recurring multi-national NATO exercise designed to show the alliance is prepared and ready to defend the Baltic region.
Overall, BALTOPs includes 49 ships, 61 aircraft and one submarine, U.S. Navy officials said.
Exercises are taking place in Poland, Sweden and Germany as well as various parts of the Baltic Sea. Approximately 5,600 ground, naval and air forces are involved in a wide range of NATO operations to include amphibious landings, anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare air defense and inter-member communication exercises.
Participating nations in BALTOPS include Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Turkey, United Sates, and the United Kingdom."
While this year marks the 43rd annual BALTOPS, there will be some unique aspects to this year's event.
"The uniqueness of this exercise is the fact that we are launching Marines from four different nations in operations," Foggo said.
Mine countermeasure exercises are of particular importance in the Baltic Sea because of the amount of unexploded ordnance on the bottom of the ocean, he added.
The Su-24 Russian fighter jet flyover comes on the heels of a recent incident in the Black Sea involving a Navy destroyer, the USS Ross. Russian press accounts claimed that flying Su-24 fighter jets over the USS Ross led the ship to change its course, claiming the Ross' crew was behaving aggressively.
U.S. Navy officials, however, disputed this account and said the Ross was simply conducting routine operations in international waters.
"Ross observed the routine flight of the SU-24 aircraft and had no interaction while both operated in international waters. Ross continued on her mission after observing the aircraft return to base. At no time did Ross act aggressively nor did she deviate from her planned operations. The conduct of her crew has been and continues to be professional," said Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman in a statement.
-- Kris Osborn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org