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UK to lead Baltic Protector drills aimed at 'supporting European security'

The United Kingdom's new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth sails at sea in the Atlantic Ocean off the US mid-Atlantic coast, on September 27, 2018. (Photo by AFP)

Britain says it is set to lead massive Baltic Sea military maneuvers aimed at “supporting European security,” a move that is expected to further fuel long-running tensions between the NATO member and Russia.

The British ministry of defense announced Wednesday that nearly 2,000 British military personnel were going to partake in the war game, dubbed Baltic Protector, which is scheduled for May and would feature 3,000 forces from the UK-led multinational high-readiness Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF).

The ministry said in a press release that the drills underlined “the importance of protecting Europe at a time of increased threat.”

Defense ministers and representatives from JEF countries -- Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden— were going to meet in London later this week to discuss the deployment.

British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said the drills would underline London’s leading role in protecting Europe even though it was about to leave the European Union (EU).

“As Britain prepares to leave the EU, our unwavering commitment to European security and stability is more important than ever,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Deploying our world class sailors and marines to the Baltic Sea, alongside our international allies, firmly underlines Britain’s leading role in Europe,” he added.

Baltic Protector is maritime-focused and would put to the test a large number of JEF naval vessels, including some UK Royal Navy warships, in maritime tactical exercises, amphibious drills, amphibious raiding practice, shore landings and naval maneuvers.

This is the first time that JEF tries a maritime deployment of this scale. Led by the UK, the joint force is said to be able to mobilize over 10,000 forces “to deliver rapid and far-reaching effect,” according to the statement.

Personnel from the British Army and Royal Air Force were also slated to take part in the drills.

“Together, this UK-led Maritime Task Group will conduct a series of demanding amphibious exercises and maritime security patrols across the Baltic Sea that will serve to improve the way we operate together and our readiness to respond to crisis,” said Commodore James Parkin, Commander of the Task Group.

The JEF was established at the 2014 summit of the NATO alliance and launched a year later. However, it took until June 2018 for the force to become fully operational.

The force’s mission statement says it can cover a range of tasks, including combat operations, deterrence, or humanitarian support independently or in coordination with NATO, United Nations, EU and the Northern Army Group.

Tensions with Russia

The UK, as a member of NATO, has been one of the main forces behind the Western military alliance’s ongoing buildup on Russia’s borders.

London has on several occasions sent warplanes and ground forces along with armored vehicles to protect the Baltic States—Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia—against what it refers to as “Russian aggression.”

Williamson announced last year that the UK was purchasing a large fleet of US-made P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft to stop what it called Russia’s growing submarine activity near British territorial waters.

Tensions between the two countries reached a new peak last year, when London accused Moscow of orchestrating a nerve agent attack on Sergey Skripal, a Russian double agent living in Salisbury.

Despite Russia’s denial and its offer to launch a joint investigation, the UK decided to fire Russian diplomats and persuade its allies to follow suit.

The hostility continued last week, when the British Royal Air Force (RAF) sent fighter jets to intercept Russian nuclear bomber flying in international airspace near the UK.

Russia has dismissed the UK’s claims of posing a threat to Europe as part of a Western propaganda campaign to demonize the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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