HELSINKI — NATO on Sunday launched a nearly two-week US-led naval exercise in the Baltic Sea involving more than 7,000 sailors, airmen and marines from 16 nations, including two aspiring to join the military alliance, Finland and Sweden.
Initiated in 1972, the annual BALTOPS naval exercise is not held in response to any specific threat. However, the military alliance said that “with the participation of both Sweden and Finland, NATO is seizing the opportunity in an unpredictable world to enhance the resilience and strength of its combined armed forces,” along with two Nordic aspiring nations.
Finland and Sweden both have long histories of military non-alignment before their governments decided to apply for NATO membership in May, a direct result of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. In recent years, Moscow has repeatedly warned Helsinki and Stockholm not to join the Western military alliance and has warned of retaliatory measures if they do.
Ahead of the naval exercise involving 45 ships and 75 aircraft, the top US military official in Sweden – the host of exercise BALTOPS 22 – said it was particularly important for NATO to show its support to the governments in Helsinki and Stockholm .
“It is important for us, the United States and the other NATO allies, to show solidarity with both Finland and Sweden in this exercise,” U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Saturday during a Press conference aboard the large amphibious warship USS Kearsarge, moored in central Stockholm.
In conversation with the Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, Milley emphasized that the Baltic Sea is a strategically important body of water – “one of the great sea lanes in the world”.
He said from Moscow’s perspective, Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession will be “very problematic” and leave Russia in a difficult military position, as the Baltic Sea coast would be almost entirely surrounded by NATO members, with the exception of Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad and Russia’s City of St. Petersburg and environs.
Turkey, a NATO member with good relations with Russia, has protested Finland and Sweden’s entry into the military alliance, citing their alleged support for a Kurdish group that Turkey describes as terrorist. The NATO boss has tried to settle the dispute.
The United States has never before deployed a warship as large as the 843-foot USS Kearsarge to the Swedish capital, where it sailed through narrow passages in the Stockholm archipelago, Milley said.
As close partners of NATO, Finland and Sweden have been taking part in the naval exercise since the mid-1990s.
BALTOPS 22 is scheduled to depart from the German port of Kiel on June 17th.
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