MOSCOW — Four U.S. Navy ships on Monday entered the Barents Sea, located off of Russia’s northwestern Arctic coast — the first time U.S. warships have entered the area since the 1980s — according to a statement Monday from the U.S. Navy’s 6th fleet.
Though international waters, the Barents Sea is Russia’s naval backyard. Russia’s Northern Fleet, the heart of the Russian Navy, is anchored in Severomorsk — tucked in a bay off the Barents Sea.
The Navy said it notified the Russian Ministry of Defense on Friday of its intention to send ships into the Barents. Russia’s military said in a statement Monday that “Northern Fleet assets are monitoring the activities of the NATO strike group.”
Military tensions between the U.S. and Russia remain high six years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine. Even amid the COVID-19 epidemic, military messaging between the two sides has continued.
Last week, Russia sent nuclear-capable bombers and submarine-hunters on long-distance patrols along Western borders. And two weeks ago, the U.S. accused Russia of testing an anti-satellite missile after Russia called for talks on limiting the deployment of weapons in outer space.
The two sides are currently locked in disagreement over the future of nuclear arms control, with a major bilateral arms control treaty, New START, set to expire early in 2021. A decision on extending the treaty is required this year.
In its statement Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry noted that the U.S. destroyers that entered the Barents Sea — the Porter, Donald Cook and Roosevelt — are armed with missile defense systems.
These systems are a cornerstone of US-Russian disagreements about nuclear arms control. Russia argues that the missile defense systems destabilize international security, and for years has demanded they be included in future arms control cuts.
These U.S. vessels are no stranger to the Russian Navy, and have been frequently involved in close encounters between U.S. and Russian forces in the Baltic and Black Seas. The grouping was joined by a U.S. supply vessel and a UK frigate, the HMS Kent.
All five of the ships participated in anti-submarine exercises in the Arctic over the weekend.
The U.S. Navy has said Russian submarine activity in the region has returned to Cold War levels, and the Russian military has made clear that new submarines are a key part of modernization plans.