The US has decided that the right time to stage its first operations in the far northern Barents Sea since the Cold War is while itself and much of the globe remains locked down by a pandemic.
“U.S. Navy surface ships have not operated in the Barents since the mid-1980s,” US Naval Forces Europe said in a statement Monday announcing the start of operations there. “Allied and partner navies must remain proficient in all operating environments to ensure the continued security and access to the seas.”
Three destroyers — USS Donald Cook, USS Porter and USS Roosevelt — along with a combat support ship USNS Supply sailed through the sea just north of Finland and Russia, and within the Arctic Circle, in an area considered 'Russia's backyard'. The American ships were also joined by the United Kingdom’s HMS Kent.
Russian media underscored the Kremlin viewed the rare maneuvers as particularly provocative given "The Barents Sea is Russia’s equivalent of the Gulf of Mexico to the US, sitting between its major Arctic ports and the North Pole," as RT described it.
The US 6th Fleet additionally announced it demonstrates readiness to “assert freedom of navigation and demonstrate seamless integration among allies,” as well as to “maintain our steady drumbeat of operations across the European theater.”
🇺🇸&🇬🇧 are operating together in the #BarentsSea ⚓— U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet (@USNavyEurope) May 5, 2020
Four #US6thFleet ships are sailing with #HMSKent, conducting #maritimesecurity operations above the #Arctic Circle. #Powerforpeace #openforbusiness #strongertogether #WeAreNATO
Read about it here: https://t.co/J8X7NbabA4.
It's also significant and very noticeable that in a tweet issued via the 6th Fleet's official Twitter account, the Navy used the hashtag "#openforbusiness".
At this point at least four US Navy aircraft carriers — the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the USS Ronald Reagan, the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Nimitz — have reported cases of coronavirus, crimping their operations. Most notably the Roosevelt had over a month ago been diverted from its original mission in the West Pacific, and now has over 1,000 sailors that have tested positive for COVID-19.
And a further more than two dozen warships at port have crew with coronavirus infections. The US Navy is now so desperate to keep the outbreak from further damaging operational readiness, that it's keeping warships with crew deemed "clean" — that is, completely free of coronavirus cases — deployed for an additional length of time with no port calls and no deployment end date amid a worsening crisis aboard other ships.
So certainly these latest deployments right off Russia's doorstep are meant to send a clear signal to American rivals, but could also be taken in Moscow and Beijing and as act of desperation, given the COVID-19 situation on the US domestic front.