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Russia’s Northern Fleet holds military drills in Arctic region as tensions with West over Ukraine mount

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
The Russian cruiser Marshal Ustinov of the Northern Fleet sails north of Finnmark, January 25, 2022. (Photo by Norwegian Air Force)

Russia’s Northern Fleet starts military drills in the Arctic in a declared attempt to rehearse protecting a major shipping lane in the region as Moscow stages sweeping military exercises involving all of its fleets amid alarming tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

On Wednesday, a detachment of warships and support vessels of the Northern Fleet, the most powerful fleet in the Russian Navy, entered the Barents Sea, the Russian Defense Ministry announced on its official Twitter account. It added that the deployment was part of an exercise with the Arctic expeditionary group of forces and troops.

The military drills, which involve some 30 warships, 20 aircraft and 1,200 personnel, are designed to assess the troops’ combat readiness in the Arctic and their ability to protect the Northern Sea Route. Russia has invested heavily in infrastructure to develop the shipping lane.

According to Russian authorities, Moscow intends to begin year-round shipping via the Northern Sea Route in 2022 or 2023.

In a statement, the Northern Fleet said that the military exercises will see troops rehearse repelling military threats and help “ensure the security of sea lanes and Russia's areas of maritime economic activity in the northern seas in the event of a crisis.”

Separately on Wednesday, the Russian Black Sea Fleet announced that more than 20 combat ships and vessels of the fleet had departed from their naval bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk to carry out military drills in the Black Sea waters.

“The drills of combined-arms task forces, naval strike and amphibious assault groups in the Black Sea involve frigates, guard ships, missile corvettes and missile boats, amphibious assault ships, small anti-submarine warfare ships and also minesweepers,” the Fleet’s press office added in a statement, carried by TASS news agency.

Last week, Moscow said it would hold a series of drills involving all its fleets in the seas adjacent to Russia in January and February. The exercises will also include maneuvers in the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific.

According to TASS, the sweeping drills, overall, will bring together more than 140 warships and support vessels, over 60 aircraft, 1,000 items of military hardware and some 10,000 troops.

The developments come as tensions over Ukraine are alarmingly rising.

Russia and NATO have recently been at odds over Ukraine. Western countries accuse Russia of preparing for an invasion of Ukraine by amassing troops and armaments near the border with that country. Moscow says it is free to move its military freely within its borders and that it is taking precautionary steps because of increased NATO activity near its territory. Last month, the Russian government made demands on NATO and Ukraine about the future of their relationship, calling on the Western military alliance to deny Ukraine membership to NATO and to roll back its military deployments.

Moscow also proposed that the US not establish any military bases in the former Soviet states that are not part of NATO, and not develop a bilateral military alliance with them. Washington has rejected the proposals as "non-starters."

Russia has repeatedly warned that Moscow will act if NATO crosses its red line in Ukraine.

The US has committed more than $650 million in security assistance to Ukraine in the past year and more than $2.7 billion in total since 2014, when then Ukrainian territory of the Crimean Peninsula voted in a referendum to fall under Russian sovereignty.

Several NATO members such as Britain, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands have already sent consignments of weapons and warships to the region.

The US and NATO's latest provocations against Russia come while American and Russian diplomats have failed to make a breakthrough in talks to resolve the crisis over Ukraine, although they agreed to continue the talks.

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