Thousands of NATO troops, several warships and dozens of aircraft are taking part in the military drills that stretch across the Atlantic, through Europe and into the Black Sea region - amid simmering tensions with Russia. The exercise, dubbed Steadfast Defender 21, aims to simulate the response of a 30-nation military organization to an attack on one of its members. This will test NATO's ability to deploy troops from the US and keep supply lines open.
The alliance has in recent years deployed troops and equipment in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to try to convince its members neighboring Russia that their partners would step up to the rescue if they were attacked. Moscow's decision last month to send thousands of troops to the border area with Ukraine has raised concerns in NATO, which launched one of its biggest defense spending initiatives after Russian troops annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014. The NATO chief insisted that the military exercises, involving 9,000 troops from 20 countries, were not aimed at Russia specifically, but they focused on the Black Sea region, where Moscow is accused of obstructing the free navigation of ships.
"Nato is there to defend all of our allies, and this exercise sends a message about our ability to transport large numbers of troops, equipment across the Atlantic, across Europe and also to project maritime power," he told the Associated Press aboard a British aircraft carrier off the coast. Portugal. HMS Queen Elizabeth is the pride of the British Navy, making its maiden voyage and carrying 18 F-35 jets: the first of many fifth-generation aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier.
Adorned with high-tech US jets and flanked by warships from other NATO nations, the carrier force also stands as an important symbol of unity as the world's largest security organization tries to recover from four tumultuous years under the Trump administration. Stoltenberg will chair a NATO summit in Brussels on June 14, with US President Joe Biden and his colleagues looking to usher in a new era of transatlantic cooperation, as troops abandon their longest-running mission in Afghanistan as tensions rise with Russia, and increasingly China. The war games tie up two new NATO command centers, one in Norfolk, Virginia; another in Ulm, Germany.
NATO says Russia is mapping out cable routing and may have darker intentions. "We've all been lulled into thinking the Atlantic is a harmless region where nothing bad happens, and we can just use it as a freeway," said Norfolk commander, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis. “There are countries out there mapping out those cables. They may do other bad things. We have to realize that and answer it.” NATO says its policy towards Russia is based on two pillars: strong military deterrence and dialogue. But high-level meetings between the two historic foes are rare, and European officials insist President Vladimir Putin is becoming increasingly authoritarian and distancing himself from the West.
"We are ready to sit down with Russia, because we think it's important to talk, especially when times are tough," Stoltenberg said. "The main challenge now is that Russia has not responded positively to our invitation, or our initiative, to the NATO-Russia Council meeting."