US Marines join Finnish-led drills in Baltic Sea, with Russia watching
Stars and Stripes November 24, 2023
U.S. Marines are among more than 4,000 allied personnel participating in a Finland-led military exercise that is drawing Russian concerns over NATO’s growing might in the Baltic Sea.
Freezing Winds 23 is the first major maritime exercise led by Finland since it joined NATO in April, the Finnish navy said in a statement earlier this month.
The exercise takes place in the Gulf of Finland and Archipelago Sea.
Former Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Ordzhonikidze on Thursday said the exercise could serve as practice for Finland taking over Russian islands in the Baltic should a conflict arise, according to the state-controlled Tass agency, which cited the newspaper Izvestia.
Finland’s NATO membership makes a potential naval blockade of Kaliningrad a possibility, according to the Tass report. Any blockade would involve control of the islands, the report stated.
The exclave of Kaliningrad has long been viewed as key to Russia’s strategy in the event of conflict with NATO nations.
The nearby Baltic nations, each of which were annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, have long been wary of Russia’s intentions. That wariness has grown since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. However, reinforcing the war in Ukraine has also thinned Russia’s defenses in the Baltic region, according to security analysts.
When asked about the Russian comments on Friday, the Finnish navy said the exercise is defensive in nature and similar to last year’s drills.
Freezing Winds includes Marines assigned to Marine Rotational Force-Europe and U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa. The exercise includes mine countermeasures and explosive ordnance disposal, among other objectives, according to the Nov. 15 statement.
The drills are “a demonstration of NATO’s interest in and commitment to the protection of underwater infrastructure,” Finnish navy Capt. Juhapekka Rautava, commander of the exercise, said in the statement.
High profile incidents, such as the sabotage of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline last year, have demonstrated the vulnerability of underwater communications and energy lines in the Baltic Sea.
No U.S. ships were among the 30 vessels taking part in the exercise, which includes Sweden, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Poland.
But F/A-18 Hornets assigned to Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 224 were among participating aircraft, the Finnish navy said.
Other participating U.S. units include Combat Logistics Battalion 6, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, 2nd Marine Logistics Group and Marine Air Control Squadron 2, according to the Defense Department’s media website.