NATO and Russian warships mass in the Mediterranean as signs grow that the Kremlin is about to launch an invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. Navy’s supercarrier USS Harry S. Truman, along with its associated strike group, are now under NATO command and control as part of a major exercise called Neptune Strike 22 in the Mediterranean Sea. This comes as the Russian military prepares to launch large-scale naval drills around the world, including in the Mediterranean, which some members of the alliance, as well as experts and observers, fear might actually be part of preparations for a new military intervention into Ukraine. A number of NATO nations, including the United States, are or are considering sending forces to areas along Russia’s borders, and are sending weapons and other military equipment to Ukraine, in response to the Kremlin’s actions.
The U.S. Sixth Fleet turned over operational control of the Truman and its strike group to Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKEFORNATO) today, marking the beginning of Neptune Strike 22. The Truman Carrier Strike Group also includes the Ticonderoga class cruiser USS San Jacinto, the Arleigh Burke class destroyers USS Cole, USS Bainbridge, USS Gravely, and USS Jason Dunham, along with Carrier Air Wing One and the Royal Norwegian Navy frigate HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen.
The command ship USS Mount Whitney, the Sixth Fleet’s flagship, is taking part in this exercise and other NATO members are contributing, as well. Last week, authorities in France announced that the French Navy carrier Charles de Gaulle would train with Truman, along with the Italian aircraft carrier ITS Cavour, next month, but it’s unclear if this will be part of Neptune Strike 22, which is scheduled to run through February 4th.
Other U.S. Navy vessels are in the region but are not necessarily taking part in Neptune Strike 22. Just last week, the Navy highlighted the presence of the Ohio class guided-missile submarine USS Georgia, a highly specialized and capable multi-purpose strike, special operations, and intelligence gathering platform in the Eastern Mediterranean. That disclosure was at least in part a separate signal to Russia about American capabilities in place in the region.
“It’s designed to demonstrate NATO’s ability to integrate the high-end maritime strike capabilities of an aircraft carrier strike group to support the deterrence and defense of the alliance,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said during a press conference on Jan. 21, 2022, adding that planning for the exercise dated back to 2020. “The strike group along with several other NATO allies will participate in coordinated maritime maneuvers, anti-submarine warfare training, and long-range strike training.”
At the same time, no matter how long Neptune Strike 22 has been in the works, it’s hard not to see it take on new significance in light of fears that Russia may be about to launch a new invasion of Ukraine. In December, USNI News reported that U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had ordered the Truman Carrier Strike Group to remain in the Mediterranean to help reassure allies and partners in Europe over concerns about the Kremlin’s plans. It’s unclear where the carrier was originally expected to be operating during this NATO exercise.
Intentional or not, Neptune Strike 22 also comes as the Russian military is preparing to kick off its own major naval exercises in the Mediterranean, as well as in parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Russian officials say approximately 140 ships will deploy worldwide for these drills, along with dozens of aircraft. Just today, the Russian Navy announced that 20 ships from its Baltic Fleet, just under half of the vessels assigned to that command, will be among those taking part in these drills.
Three Project 775 Ropucha class landing ships from the Baltic Fleet, together with two more Ropuchas and a Project 11711 Ivan Gren class landing ship from the Northern Fleet, are among the vessels heading to the Mediterranean now. The Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet’s flagship, the Slava class cruiser Varyag, together with the Udaloy class destroyer Admiral Tributs and the fleet oiler Boris Butoma, are expected to join them following the conclusion of separate drills, called CHIRU-2022, with the Chinese and Iranian navies in the Gulf of Oman. It is very odd to see Russia’s Pacific fleet flagship heading to the Medeterannian. A Russian Navy Vishnya class intelligence-gathering ship, the Vasiliy Tatishchev, was seen entering the Mediterranean last week, too.
The six landing ships, which can carry armored vehicles, troops, and other military equipment, have garnered significant attention already since they left the Baltic Sea region earlier this month. It’s unclear if they’re bringing amphibious forces with them, but there has been much discussion about the possibility that they are actually headed for the Black Sea to be in position for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. These vessels could be valuable assets to support amphibious operations along Ukraine’s coastlines, especially in the Sea of Azov just north of the Black Sea, as part of a broader, multi-pronged Russian intervention.
Even if the Russian naval exercises in the Mediterranean are actually part of a larger buildup of forces to support operations in and around Ukraine in the near term, they could present a distraction from Kremlin’s actual efforts in that regard. They might simply complicate NATO’s own naval movements in the region should a new Russo-Ukrainian conflict erupt.
The Russian Navy’s activities elsewhere in the world could have similar impacts. For instance, Russia’s ships will conduct highly unusual live-fire training in international waters within Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone. This has drawn a rebuke from that country, which is not a member of NATO and has a long history of neutrality with regards to European geopolitical affairs. “We don’t have the power to prevent this happening, but certainly I’ve made it clear to the Russian ambassador in Ireland that it’s not welcome,” Simon Coveney, who currently serves as Ireland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense, said today.
The Kremlin has already deployed tens of thousands of troops to areas along its borders with Ukraine, along with significant numbers of tanks, artillery systems, short-range ballistic missiles, and other key assets. It has been sending additional forces into Belarus in recent weeks, as well. All of this is ostensibly for exercises, but again has prompted concerns that it could actually be part of Russia laying the groundwork for an upcoming intervention into Ukraine.
While Ukraine is not a NATO member and the alliance has no plans at present to send forces to that country to take up positions opposite Russian forces, it has been working to bolster its own force posture in areas along its periphery with Russia. NATO officials announced today that the Netherlands is sending a pair of stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to a base in Bulgaria, while France is considering a troop deployment to Romania. This is an addition to Denmark’s announcement last week that it would be sending four F-16 fighter jets and a frigate to the Baltic region, along with Spain’s dispatching of naval forces to the Black Sea. U.S. President Joe Biden is reportedly considering sending thousands of American troops to Europe to further bolster the alliance’s position.
These movements are also clearly meant to push back against Russia’s demands that NATO scale back its posture, especially in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea regions. The Kremlin has been seeking major concessions from NATO, which the alliance is unlikely to be either willing or able to comply with, in exchange for de-escalating the situation regarding Ukraine.
“I welcome Allies contributing additional forces to NATO. NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all Allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the Alliance,” NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg said today. “We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.”
Separately, the U.S. government, as well as those other NATO members, continue to step up deliveries of so-called “lethal aid” to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons and ammunition. American and British authorities have been particularly active in publicizing the arrival of these shipments, as well as their contents. There have been a series of reports that U.S. officials, among others, are looking to further expedite the approval of additional military assistance packages for Ukraine, including the transfer of at least five Mi-17 helicopters that had previously belonged to the now-defunct Afghan Air Force.
At the same time, all of this has exposed rifts within the alliance, with the German government notably refusing to contribute this kind of assistance. That decision has also prevented Estonia, another NATO nation, from transferring artillery pieces and ammunition it acquired from Germany to Ukraine. The head of the German Navy was also forced to resign recently over extremely controversial comments during a trip to India where he said, among other things, that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin deserved more respect from the international community and implied there might be the possibility of an alliance with the Kremlin against China.
Fears that a new Russian military incursion of some kind into Ukraine may be imminent only appear to be growing. The U.S. State Department has now ordered families of its personnel in Ukraine to depart the country and has authorized the departure of some non-essential personnel while advising American nationals to leave at their earliest possible convenience. British authorities have taken similar actions and Australian officials have warned their citizens to leave, as well.
This has all prompted discussions about whether the intelligence agencies in these countries, which are all members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing mechanism, have made new assessments about the Kremlin’s intentions regarding Ukraine. The U.S. and British governments did both recently accuse Russian authorities of working with individuals in Ukraine on a plan to seize power in Kyiv in the event of a new military intervention.
All told, it still very much remains to be how the situation in and around Ukraine will continue to evolve in the coming days and weeks. At the same time, the convergence of NATO and Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean underscores a growing additional dimension to this brewing crisis.