Category Archives: Europe

Analysis related to USEUCOM

Germany in the Arctic-North Atlantic: Reassessing “Forgotten Waters,” Part 2

Read Part One here.

By Michael Paul and Göran Swistek

Germany is heavily involved in­ issues related to the­ Arctic, from the consequences of climate change to maritime security and the preservation of the Arctic as an area of cooperation. However, the Arctic has lost its exceptional character as a place of­ peaceful cooperation and stability. In addition to Russia’s militarization, persistent territorial and resource disputes are now emerging in the Arctic and sub-Arctic region, most recently around the Svalbard archipelago administered by Norway.1

Geo-strategically, Germany lies at the interface between the High North, the Atlantic, the Baltic Sea, and the European mainland. Important maritime and land­ connections in terms of foreign trade and security policy run either through Germany or along its territory. As a member of the EU and the Council of the Baltic Sea States as well as an observer on the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, Berlin has numerous issues on its agenda relating to the Arctic. It has summarized these in the guidelines­ for German Arctic policy.2

From a security policy perspective, Germany’s interest in the region must be seen above all in the context of NATO. For this reason, the main area of operation for the German Navy and the focus for its future capability development will be related to NATO’s northern flank—the maritime space between the Arctic region, the GIUK gap, the North-Atlantic and the North Sea as well as the Baltic Sea region.3 The aim is to defend Europe against possible threats while keeping the main trans­port and connecting lines open. Part of the NATO context is also Germany’s function as a hub for Allied logistics. As the host country for Allied troop and materiel movements, the German armed forces have additional tasks in the areas of support, logistics, and security. German military airfields can also serve as bases for Allied aircraft, from helicopters to maritime patrol aircraft and jets. From Germany, they can reach most areas of operation, including the Arctic-North Atlantic region.

Germany depends on secure sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation. However, these are being called into question by the growing­ rivalry between the United States, China, and Russia, which is also taking effect in the High North. As potential peer competitors of NATO, China and Russia view their security ­policy and economic interests ­not in a regionally limited but in a broader geo-strategic ­context.

It is in Germany’s interest to counteract existing geopolitical tensions in the region and prevent conflicts of interest and potential crises in the Arctic in accordance with the guidelines of German Arctic policy. Ensuring freedom of navigation, Germany feels compelled to react to Russian activities and contain the potential for further destabilization.

The German Navy in the Arctic-North Atlantic Region

Against the backdrop of a possible arms race and escalation spiral, Germany must also fulfil its NATO obligations in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. The participation of the German Armed Forces in drills and exercises in the Arctic or sub-Arctic region should be understood as an expression of reliability to the Alliance, reassurance, and a signal of deterrence. On the land side, these exercises included the participation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in the major NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2018 in northern Norway4 and the participation of the naval sea battalion in Arctic training with Dutch marines in 2019. The latter served to prepare a joint German-Dutch amphibious task group.

On the naval side, the sub-Arctic area in the North Atlantic and the northern Baltic Sea is one of the standard maritime areas in which the German Navy operates. It does so in standing NATO maritime task groups and in bilateral cooperation, especially with Norway. Within the framework of NATO’s Baltic Maritime Coordination Function (BMCF), the German Navy intends to assume responsibility for the entire Baltic Sea in the ­future. In the conceptual capstone paper of May 2021 for the German Armed Forces of the future,­ the Baltic Maritime Coordination Function was even listed as a priority in the reform project.5 The assumption of a geographical responsibility and coordination function for NATO by the armed forces of a member country outside of the NATO command and force structure is a security policy novelty in the Alliance. Poland and Germany have separately applied to take on the BMCF. After the inauguration of a new government in Germany in December 2021, Minister of Defense, Christine Lambrecht, has put all reform projects related to the capstone paper currently on hold. But the German application for the BCMF has already been passed to NATO for approval in autumn 2020.6 The decision about the function has been postponed several times, due to frictions about the content and details with Poland.

Against the background of the increased confrontation between NATO and Russia in the region, a closer coordination appears not just to be necessary in peace time, even more in times of crisis and conflict. Therefore, a permanent adaptation of NATO’s structural footprint in the region with more regional ownership would generate more flexibility and contribute to an enhanced deterrence posture as well as a required pre-condition if deterrence fails.

In the Baltic and the North Sea, Germany’s responsibility for the protection of its coastal waters, adjacent sea ­areas, and sea lanes is obvious. However, NATO’s northern flank consists not only of the sea area between Denmark and the Baltic, but also extends across the European North ­Sea to the North ­Pole. Due to Russia’s increased military activities, the security ­and resilience of the countries in this area must be increased. One of the simplest ways to increase both deterrence and ­defense capability ­is to have as complete a picture of the situation as possible. The aim is not only to identify aggressive behavior, but also to be able to prove it. By doing so, NATO could send a clear signal to Russia where the limits of destabilizing­ ­military activity­ in the region lie.

Germany’s Reconnaissance Problem

Knowledge about the activities, interrelationships,­ and developments in a security-relevant area makes it­ possible to move from a reactive to an active security policy. For this reason, it is essential to have an encompassing as possible picture of the situation­ in the area, preferably in real time. This requires certain key capabilities. It is precisely with these key ­capabilities for the High North, such as maritime reconnaissance, submarine hunting capabilities, and submarines, that Germany has repeatedly experienced difficulties. Of the German Navy’s former eight P-3 C Orion maritime ­­reconnaissance aircraft, only four are still in operation.7 The overall availability of this aircraft type for operational purposes is assessed by around fifty percent.

Originally, this type of aircraft was not to be replaced until 2035 by the Franco-German­ Maritime Airborne Weapon System (MAWS) project. The regular use, wear, and the escalating costs of maintaining the P-3C Orion have led to the decision to withdraw the weapon system completely from service as early as 2025.8 Even now, the operational availability of this aircraft is often uncertain, so that the German Armed Forces may ­no longer be able to meet its operational obligations with this model. For this reason, Berlin has agreed on an interim solution (of an already available model in small numbers) to fulfil the tasks already ­stated in the context of Allied operations and permanent contributions in the medium term and to bridge the period until the MAWS is available.

In its last session before the summer break in 2021, the Budget Committee of the German Bundestag approved the acquisition of five P-8A Poseidon aircraft for 1.43 billion euros.9 This aircraft meets all the high technical and operational requirements currently ­placed on a maritime patrol aircraft. Norway has also opted for this model for reconnaissance in the High North.10

As an interim solution, the P-8A could remain in service with the German Armed Forces well beyond 2035 should the MAWS project be delayed or encounter problems. ­However, there are press reports that France is annoyed about Germany’s ­decision in favor of the P-8A interim solution and may therefore want to cancel the MAWS project.11

Operationally, the P-8A Poseidon can be deployed across the entire­ geographic spectrum of NATO territory or beyond. Technically, it is designed for both modern anti-submarine warfare and surface ­reconnaissance, and it should be compatible with most Allied systems ­without ­problems. In a more long term perspective, the F126 frigate with modern sensor technology for underwater distance­ detection will complement the German Navy’s anti-submarine capabilities.12 These, in turn, could­ make a significant contribution to the existing Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs) or a possible NATO ­Expanded Task Force (NETF) ­, which was tested during Trident Juncture ­2018. The assumed area of operation of the NETF would be the Arctic-North­ Atlantic region. It would be flanked­ by NATO’s SNMGs in the Mediterranean and the Baltic and North Seas.

Given the availability, maintenance cycles, and concurrent mission loads of current German MPAs, the acquisition of five P8 aircraft appears only makeshift to meet requirements. A timely addition of another five models would provide the flexibility needed to augment contributions within the alliance.

Submarines and Cooperation with Norway

The best submarine hunter is still the submarine itself. With its sensor technology, it operates in the same medium as the unit to be searched for and can quickly penetrate the most diverse water layers, which influence sound transmission through temperature and salinity. At the same time, a searching submarine faces the same challenges as the submarine for which it is searching. It does not want to be discovered. Accordingly, it must incorporate the same tactical considerations, geography, and environmental influences as well as the limits of technical possibilities into its planning. The boundaries between hunter and hunted blur seamlessly. However, given the Alliance’s large geographical area of responsibility or the maritime space alone, from the Arctic to the North Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic, NATO has only a few operational submarines. The German ­Navy currently has six Type 212 submarines, which are ideally suited for deployment in the maritime regions of the High North due to their small size and quiet, hydrogen fuel cell propulsion. Most of the time, however, only half of the boats are ready for deployment.13 This is due to­ staffing problems­ in the German Armed Forces and technical difficulties, to include failures and planned maintenance.

It is foreseeable that the German Navy will receive new units of the type U212 CD (Common Design). This acquisition was also approved by the Budget Committee before the summer break.14 The U212 CD was developed jointly by Germany and Norway. The requirements of the German and Norwegian navies for their missions were taken into account.15 On the basis of a common list of requirements, the two countries have ordered six largely equal ­submarines from the Kiel shipyard ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). Four of them are to be delivered to Norway, two to Germany. The former type U212A’s high signature requirements are combined with greater range, speed and sea endurance. The boat can also defend itself with missiles against flying opponents. Thanks to the identical boats, interoperability ­between the navies of the two countries is to be improved. However, it is already becoming ­apparent that both the German and Norwegian special requests for equipment, armament and systems will in fact result in two different submarine types. In the period 2029-2035, they are expected to provide the Norwegian­ a smooth transformation from the former Ula-Class submarine to the new Type 212CD. The first boat is to be delivered to Norway in 2029. This is at least the first step in the effort to close or at least reduce ­military capability gaps.

European vs. Indo-Pacific Priorities

Against the backdrop of China’s power politics in the Indo-Pacific region, however, the United States is increasingly challenged outside Europe and its ­periphery, although the U.S. Navy has strengthened its presence in the North Atlantic, reactivating U.S. Second Fleet in July 2018 to do so. However, many of the U.S. Navy’s specialized capabilities will be ­deployed in areas where a confrontation with China can no longer be ruled out. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, has stated that the Arctic may well have a significant geo-strategic role for the United States in the future. At present, however, he said, there are other priorities in terms of capabilities and their funding. The escalation dynamics in the Indo-Pacific are assessed as more pressing.16 No reduction or shift of American capabilities in the North Atlantic has yet been observed. Nevertheless, this remains an option for action by U.S. forces in the event that the situation in the Indo-Pacific intensifies.

It is in Germany’s interest for the United States to face up to the challenges in the Indo-Pacific. However, Washington has a legitimate expectation that European countries will address the immediate challenges­ to Europe’s security, including in the High North, more independently and credibly. Beyond command and control or coordination tasks, this requires strengthening military capabilities­, increasing readiness, closing specific capability gaps, and making more appropriate deployments available. All of this feeds directly into any defense planning and deterrence maintenance by NATO. Germany still has considerable deficits here. While Germany is often highlighted as a likeminded security ally, in a recent study, none of the four Nordic states—Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish—identified Germany as the key European security and defense partner.17

Germany will therefore have to make a far more substantial contribution to the effectiveness of European­ diplomacy and the Alliance’s defense capabilities in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. To this end, the capabilities of the German Armed Forces and the German Navy must be further improved. Berlin must be made fit for a cold response.

Dr. Michael Paul is a Senior Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and Project Director of SWP´s Armed Forces Dialogue (in cooperation with the German Ministry of Defence) and SWPs Maritime Security Dialogue. He has published extensively about the Arctic region, Asia-Pacific, China, Russia, arms control, international security, maritime security, and nuclear strategy; i.a. with Göran Swistek, Russia in the Arctic. Development Plans, Military Capability, and Crises Prevention (Berlin: SWP, 2021) and most recently a book about the Arctic, Climate Change and Geopolitics (Der Kampf um den Nordpol. Die Arktis, der Klimawandel und die Geopolitik der Großmächte, Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 2022). Recent publications:

Commander Goeran Swistek, German Navy, is a Visiting Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). He was previously advisor to the Chief and Deputy Chief of the German Navy and Assistant Chief of Staff N3 (Current Operations) on the German Maritime Forces Staff (DEU MARFOR). He holds a master’s degree in International Security Studies. His areas of expertise include the German Armed Forces, International Security and Defense Policy, Maritime Forces and Navies, Maritime Security, NATO and Defense Planning, and Security Policy in the Baltic Sea Region. Recent publications:


[1] Nilsen, Thomas, “Russia complains of Norwegian navy’s visit to Svalbard,” Arctic Today, 2021,

[2] Federal German Government, Policy Guidelines for the Arctic,

[3] See also: Kaack, Jan Christian, Chief of German Navy, Absicht 2022 (Intent 2022),

[4] Wiegold, Thomas, Trident Juncture: Es geht nicht nur um den Kampf um die Brücke von Telneset – Augen geradeaus!,

[5] German Ministry of Defence, BMVg, Eckpunkte für die Bundeswehr der Zukunft, Berlin: BMVg, 18 May 2021, S. 12,

[6] Swistek, Goeran, Abschreckung und Verteidigung im Ostseeraum, Berlin: SWP, 15 December 2020 (SWP-Aktuell 2020/A 100),

[7] Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 19/28697,­286/­1928697.pdf.

[8] Wiegold, Thomas, “Chancen der Marine auf P-8 Poseidon als neuer Seefernaufklärer steigen,” 2021,

[9] Wiegold, Thomas, “Bundestag gibt fast 20 Mrd Euro für Rüstungsprojekte frei – Auflagen unter anderem für FCAS und Puma-Schützenpanzer,” Augen geradeaus!, 23 June 2021,

[10] Nilsen, Thomas, “Norway’s new ‘eyes and ears’ in the north performs maiden flight,” The Barents Observer,

[11] Otto, Adelbert, La Tribune sagt, Paris wird das deutsch-französische MAWS-Verteidigungsprogramm aufgeben (‚Paris will abandon the MAWS project), Technik-Smartphone-News, 11 July 2021,

[12] Publication of the German Parliament, Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 19/28697,

[13] Wiegold, Thomas, Kein einziges deutsches U-Boot fährt mehr, 2017,

[14] Wiegold, Thomas, Bundestag gibt fast 20 Mrd Euro für Rüstungsprojekte frei – Auflagen unter anderem für FCAS und Puma-Schützenpanzer, Augen geradeaus!, 23 June 2021,

[15] Bredick, Marcus, Startschuss für U 212 CD, Marineforum, 23 March 2021,

[16] Everstine, Bryan W., “DOD Leaders Want More Arctic Funding, But Not Right Now,” Air Force Magazine, 2021,

[17] Kristin Haugevik et al, Nordic partnership choices in a fierier security environment: Towards more alignment, 2012,

Featured image: NORTH ATLANTIC OCEAN (April 14, 2022) The German Sachsen-class air-defense frigate FGS Sachsen (F 219) transits the North Atlantic Ocean in support of exercise Northern Viking 22. (Courtesy photo by German Navy)

Germany in the Arctic-North Atlantic: Reassessing “Forgotten Waters,” Part 1

By Michael Paul and Göran Swistek

Since the end of the Cold War, little attention has been paid to the Arctic-North Atlantic area and the so-called “GIUK gap”  the maritime space between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. The GIUK gap borders the Arctic region and creates a maritime bottleneck between the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Furthermore, it features a unique underwater topography with isothermal temperatures and hosts critical undersea infrastructure.Russia´s aggressive policies and military invasion of Ukraine has increased the relevance of this maritime space. It is therefore useful to remember a report published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) a few years ago, after completing a series of table-top exercises called “Forgotten Waters.”2 The exercises focused on the current condition, role, and importance of the GIUK gap. In the report, the authors concluded that the exercises revealed a lack of familiarity among both European and American participants with this maritime space.

For all these reasons, the GIUK gap constitutes an important chokepoint today just as did during the Cold War, where the maritime capabilities of the Soviet Union had to pass NATO surveillance and tripwires. The first part of this two-part series will examine the importance of the GIUK gap and the wider Arctic-North Atlantic region in which it is located; the second part will focus on Germany’s strategic role in the region as a European leader and NATO member.

The Geo-Strategic Situation3

The West’s relationship with Russia is the worst it has been in several decades. This is evident not only in the Black Sea region, where the Russian war in Ukraine is ongoing, but also in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. There, the NATO state of Norway has a short but direct land border and a long maritime border with Russia. In the same ­region, the non-NATO states of Finland and Sweden­ are adjusting their security policy course vis-à-vis Moscow.4 As a result of Russian aggression against Ukraine, public approval for NATO membership has reached a majority of more than half of the population in both states. Helsinki and Stockholm submitted NATO membership requests on 18 May, putting the topic on the agenda of the upcoming NATO Summit in June.5 If accepted, their membership would change not just NATO’s strategic geography but also further enhance its force and capability contribution. At the same time, it might be portrayed as a further escalatory step in Russia’s threat perception towards NATO.

From a geo-strategic perspective, an Arctic-North Atlantic area can be defined. In the past few years, NATO has revived the description northern flank for this area, as a complement to the nearly analogous term High North. The expression northern flank is a verbal construct of the Cold War that has now been brought back into use, not just within NATO but also by many observers and analysts. In the 1980s especially, NATO protected the maritime dimension of its northern flank as a counter to the Soviet Union’s Bastion concept.6 At that time, the northern flank referred to the area formed by Norway, Denmark, and parts of the North German Plain; it was under the responsibility of Headquarters Allied Forces Northern Europe.7 Today, the expression is used as a collective term in a variety of contexts. Within NATO, the narrow interpretation counts Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Norway, and the UK as northern flank states.8 A more comprehensive version adds the Baltic States and NATO’s Baltic rim.9

Geo-strategically, the European continent is an extension of the Eurasian land mass in the shape of a peninsula. However, most of Europe’s Atlantic coastline is freely accessible. For Russia, the shortest access route to the Atlantic is via the Baltic Sea or the Arctic. Important maritime and military capabilities have been relocated there; however, their freedom of movement is limited. Three of the Russian Federation Navy’s four basing areas — for the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Pacific Fleet, respectively — are anchored in waters that are separated from the high seas. Russian warships can therefore only reach the open sea through maritime canals or bottlenecks, making them easy to detect and track.10 In the Arctic, the situation initially appears to be more convenient for Russia’s naval forces. However, limiting factors there include rough weather conditions, the temporary presence of ice, and military-operational bottlenecks, namely between the GIUK gap and the area from mainland Norway via Bear Island to Svalbard (the Bear gap). Russian foreign and security doctrine is dominated by geo-strategic areas and their interlinking with geo-economic advantages.

Russia’s Arctic policy, both economic and security-related, is also a part of its strategy for expanding its political and economic influence in Europe. For Russia, the joint and coordinated collaboration of its Northern and Baltic Fleets is therefore increasingly important both for preserving its geo-strategic and geo-economic interests and defending its territory. Whether from Russia or NATO’s perspective, the High North is not a clearly definable geographic area. Instead, it closely interacts — as does the Arctic — with the adjacent geographical and geo-strategic areas of the Atlantic, the Baltic and Black Seas, and their military, political, and economic uses. In its center are the forgotten waters, particularly the GIUK gap. This maritime bottleneck plays a key role in NATO’s military operational planning and is therefore once again in focus of Allied surveillance.

Russia’s military expansion and cooperation with China

All Arctic states are interested in a peaceful and stable situation in the Arctic­ region. However, Moscow’s military policy is based on the assertion­ that the United States and NATO are threatening Russia. In Russia’s National Security­ Strategy of July 2021, the United States and NATO, which are perceived as already engaged in far-reaching hostile activities vis-à-vis Russia, are­ labelled as the greatest military threat to Russia.11 In the Arctic region, Moscow has been steadily extending its military sphere of influence further and further beyond Russian territory. The Russian government has justified military modernization in the Arctic, including the reactivation of Cold War bases, by claiming these were necessary steps to protect its national interest. After all, it is one of the most crucial tasks of the armed forces to safeguard Russia’s interests in the region.12 But this also involves ensuring that fossil energy resources, which are vital as exports and a source of state royalties and tolls, can be transported safely by ship. Recently, indications have intensified that Russia plans to establish a separate Arctic Fleet.13 This fleet would be focused on securing the Russian Arctic front and the Northern Sea Route, relieving the assets of the Northern and Pacific Fleets that are currently fulfilling these tasks.

Developing and exploiting Arctic resources while simultaneously expanding the infrastructure of a main maritime transport route requires great expenditure. Russia cannot afford it on its own. Its dependence on fossil fuels as the geo-economic foundation of its national power and on China as a geostrategic partner leaves it in a fragile position. Chinese and Russian­ geo-economic interests in the Northern Sea Route as part of a future larger Polar Silk Road are not identical, but they are essential for Russia’s use of the Arctic as a national resource base and for its own role as a future trade hub­.

The desired ­strengthening of Russia’s great power ­status finds its military expression in the fact that Moscow is promoting the joint and coordinated interaction between Russia’s Northern and Baltic Fleets. This is intended to safeguard geo-strategic and geo-economic ­­interests and to ensure the defense of Russian territory. In addition, the melting sea ice will make it ­possible to send fleets­ across the North Sea to the Atlantic ­or the Pacific. As a result, despite efforts by Arctic states to preserve peace and stability, military activities in the Arctic-North Atlantic region will further increase, eventually strengthening its maritime partnership with China.14

Allied activities in the High North

Uncertainty is rising about the increasing militarization of the Arctic-North Atlantic region and the growing presence of Russian but also Allied naval units in its waters. Recently, NATO has been communicating its military determination and readiness in the region, most notably via the execution of the largest Allied maneuvers since the end of the Cold War. With the participation of 50,000 soldiers, 250 aircraft, and 65 ships, Trident Juncture 2018 not only involved the relocation of the then German-led land VJTF, but also the recapture of an occupied part of Norway and integration of an American carrier strike group to control the sea area between Iceland, Greenland, and Norway.15 In response, Russia conducted Ocean Shield 2019, involving a strategic scenario stretching from the Arctic and the North Atlantic to the Baltic Sea.16 In May 2020, the U.S.-led destroyer task group, comprising USS Donald Cook, USS Roosevelt, USS Porter, USNS Supply, and British destroyer HMS Kent, patrolled the Barents Sea for the first time since the end of the Cold War.17 Soon afterwards, in September 2020, HMS Sutherland, RFA Tidespring, and USS Ross repeated the patrol.18

In July 2021, Irish media reported the presence of a Russian reconnaissance ship not far from its territorial waters.19 Its position matched remarkably with the layout of the inner European and transatlantic undersea cables leaving Ireland.20 The use of unmanned, underwater drones was also observed. The Irish Armed Forces intelligence service then launched an official investigation into the incident.21 In early January 2022, one of the two existing underwater cables that connect the SvalSat park on Svalbard with the Norwegian mainland had been cut through human involvement, resulting in the loss of backup satellite connections for several days.22 The mechanical disruption took place half way in-between Norway and Svalbard at a water depth of around 2,700 meters. The sabotage has still not been attributed, but not many actors have the technical capabilities to execute such a sophisticated and covert manipulation of maritime infrastructure.

In August 2021, parallel to the implementation of the Russian large-scale exercise Zapad 2021, a small contingent of Russian warships and auxiliary ships was dispatched to the waters around Iceland,23 where it stayed for several days. Overall, the Zapad 2021 exercise was declared a priority for the Russian Northern Fleet,24 although in retrospect activities in the maritime domain by Russian naval units were equally noticeable from the Black and Baltic Seas to the Arctic-North Atlantic area.

This increase in Russian naval activity has triggered structural responses in the United States. Since July 2021, NATO’s newest joint force command (JFC) in Norfolk, Virginia has acted as the headquarters for the Atlantic and the maritime space of the Arctic and subarctic region. In the future, it is to lead regional activities within its sphere of responsibility. U.S. Second Fleet has also been re-established and assigned to JFC Norfolk, led by a dual-hatted U.S. commander, which promises to bring a noticeable increase in capabilities and more flexibility to NATO. Since its re-establishment, U.S. Second Fleet has already conducted an Arctic exercise, involving the use of emptied or long-time unused military bases in Iceland.25 The United States continues to provide reliable ­security­ for a stable northern ­flank of NATO, enabling the trinity of deterrence­, defense, and dialogue to be maintained undiminished for a decade­.

Only a few years ago, Norway still regarded the Arctic region as a region of cooperation. Traditionally, Oslo has tried to pursue a ­balanced policy ­between deterrence and ­cooperation. After 2014, this approach has become more difficult due to the changed security situation. In the last ­version of its Long-Term Defence­­ 2020, Norway acknowledged that the High North has become an arena of great power rivalry and therefore increasing instability.26 Norway sees itself as the eyes and ears of NATO and therefore invests considerable sums in reconnaissance. ­Starting from Evenes Airport, the Norwegian Air Force is currently testing its first Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft.27 Five of these maritime reconnaissance aircraft were ordered in 2017 and are to be ­gradually transferred into active service by 2022. The Norwegian Armed Forces intend to completely replace their aging fleet of Lockheed P-3C/N and Dassault Falcon 20 maritime patrol ­aircraft by the end of 2023.28

In the overall ­network of NATO defense planning, Norway plays a leading role in the region. Alone, it does not see itself directly threatened by Russia­. As a member of NATO, however, it is noticing the increasing­ deterioration of security relations and considers a shift of tensions to the High North as a real danger.29 Russia fosters such perception through an increase in exercises such as Ocean Shield 2019, which took place with around 70 warships and 58 aircraft in the vicinity of Norwegian territorial waters. In October 2019, ten Russian submarines passed through the North Sea on their way to the North Atlantic, the largest such deployment since the Cold War. The Norwegian Armed Forces are renewing their capabilities to monitor such activities. With the planned deployment of new maritime patrol aircraft in the­ High North, the distances to possible areas of operation will be minimized.30 Since the Arctic-North Atlantic region is an extensive sea area in which submarines can move almost unrestrictedly, the corresponding reconnaissance requirements must in principle be deployed everywhere and flexibly.

However, Norway’s five new maritime patrol aircraft are not alone sufficient to provide NATO with a comprehensive and virtually gapless picture of the vast maritime area in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. To this end, other NATO members must make contributions, especially those with appropriate capabilities and a geo-strategic connection to the area. Germany is one of these states, along with the United States, Iceland — with Keflavik as an important air base for the deployment of Allied P-8 aircraft — Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Part 2 of this article will focus on Germany.

Read Part Two.

Dr. Michael Paul is a Senior Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and Project Director of SWP´s Armed Forces Dialogue (in cooperation with the German Ministry of Defence) and SWP’s Maritime Security Dialogue. He has published extensively about the Arctic region, Asia-Pacific, China, Russia, arms control, international security, maritime security, and nuclear strategy; i.a. with Göran Swistek, Russia in the Arctic. Development Plans, Military Capability, and Crises Prevention (Berlin: SWP, 2021) and most recently a book about the Arctic, Climate Change and Geopolitics (Der Kampf um den Nordpol. Die Arktis, der Klimawandel und die Geopolitik der Großmächte, Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 2022). Recent publications:

Commander Goeran Swistek, German Navy, is a Visiting Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). He was previously advisor to the Chief and Deputy Chief of the German Navy and Assistant Chief of Staff N3 (Current Operations) on the German Maritime Forces Staff (DEU MARFOR). He holds a master’s degree in International Security Studies. His areas of expertise include the German Armed Forces, International Security and Defense Policy, Maritime Forces and Navies, Maritime Security, NATO and Defense Planning, and Security Policy in the Baltic Sea Region. Recent publications:


[1] Smith, Julianne & Hendrix, Jerry, Forgotten Waters. Minding the GIUK Gap. A Tabletop Exercise, Washington, DC: CNAS, May 2017,

[2] Ibid

[3] This section is a revised and updated version of Paul, Michael &  Swistek, Goeran, Russia in the Arctic. Development Plans, Military Capability, and Crises Prevention, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), 2022/SWP Research Paper,

[4] Paul, Michael & Ålander, Minna, Moscow Threatens the Balance in the High North. In Light of Russia’s War in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden Are Moving Closer to NATO,” Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), March 2022 (SWP Comments).

[5] NPR News, Finland and Sweden formally submit NATO membership applications, 18 May 2022,

[6] Russia has deployed submarines in the Russian Arctic with weapons that guarantee about two-thirds of the country’s maritime nuclear second-strike capability. The Soviet-era concept of the bastion, now revived, stipulates a protective zone for these submarines that stretches across the Barents Sea to Greenland.

[7] Milton, T. Ross, “The Northern Flank,” Air Force Magazine, 1 April 1988, flank/.

[8] Lorenz, Wojciech, “Defence Priorities for NATO’s Northern Flank,” Warsaw: Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), 8 May 2019.

[9] See, e.g., “Maritimes Symposium über die ‘Renaissance der Nordflanke’”, bundeswehr-journal, 17 November 2016,

[10] English, Robert David & Gardner, Morgan Grant, “Phantom Peril in the Arctic. Russia Doesn’t Threaten the United States in the High North – but Climate Change Does,” Foreign Affairs, 29 September 2020.

[11] Dyner, Anna Maria, Russia’s National Security Strategy, 2021,

[12] Paul, Michael & Swistek, Goeran, “Russia in the Arctic,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), 2022,

[13] Daly, John C.K., “Russia Considers Developing a New Fleet in the Arctic, Jamestown, 2022,

[14] Paul, Michael, “Partnership on the High Seas” China and Russia’s Joint Naval Manoeuvres,” SWP Comment, 2019,

[15] Argano, Maria Elena, “Trident Juncture 18 ‘From the largest ship to the smallest drone:’ the implications of the largest NATO exercise,” EU-Logos Athéna, 05 December 2018,

[16] Tømmerbakke, Siri Gulliksen, “Russia to Test Missiles Off the North Norwegian Coast This Week,” High North News, 04 February 2020,

[17] USNI News, “U.S., U.K. Surface Warships Patrol Barents Sea For First Time Since the 1980s,” 2020,

[18] Ibid

[19] H. I. Sutton, “Russian Spy Ship Yantar Loitering Near Trans-Atlantic Internet Cables,” Naval News (online), 19 August 2021,

[20] Details of the undersea cables can be found here: “Submarine Cable Map,” 23 September 2021,

[21] Mooney, John, “Navy called in as Russians suspected of targeting undersea internet cable,” The Sunday Times (online), 15 August 2021,

[22] Staalesen, Atle, “‘Human activity’ behind Svalbard cable disruption,”

[23], “Coastguard tracked Russian naval ships” (online), 31 August 2021,

[24] The Independent Barents Observer, “Northern Fleet Commander says Zapad-2021 will be next year’s main effort,” 28 September 2021,

[25] USNI News, “U.S. 2nd Fleet Flexes Arctic Operational Muscle,”

[26] Norwegian Ministry of Defence, Long Term Defence Plan 2020: Capability and Readiness,—english-summary.pdf.

[27] O’dwyer, Gerard, “Norway sets timeline to deploy sub-hunting aircraft in the Arctic,” Defense News, 27 August 2021,

[28] Dr. Åtland, Kristian, The Building up of Russia’s Military Potential in the Arctic Region and Possible Elements of its Deterrence, Centre for Russian Studies.

[29] Norwegian Ministry of Defence, Long Term Defense Plan 2016: Capable and Sustainable,

[30] O’dwyer, Gerard, “Norway sets timeline to deploy sub-hunting aircraft in the Arctic,” Defense News, 27 August 2021,

Featured image: The U.S. Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE-8) conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), right, and the German Navy frigate Hessen (F221) in the Atlantic Ocean on 28 February 2018. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

Gators in Motion: Demystifying Recent Russian Amphibious Activity

By Ben Claremont

The past several weeks have seen some extraordinary Russian naval activity.1 On 17 and 18 January 2021, six Russian amphibious warfare ships sortied from the Baltic Sea, passing through the Danish straits to the North Sea. On 24 January, TASS reported that over 20 surface combatants and auxiliaries sortied from the Russian Baltic Fleet.2 Recent satellite radar imagery of Baltiysk Naval Base in Kaliningrad shows only the two Neustrashimy-class frigates in port.3 This implies that all four Steregushchiy-class corvettes and several of the 21 smaller ships assigned to the fleet are at sea.4 In addition, major portions of the Northern, Pacific, and Black Sea Fleets have sortied, nominally as part of a large exercise.5 On 4 February, the six amphibious ships stopped for resupply in Tartus, Syria.6 Currently, they have transited the Turkish Straits and entered the Black Sea.7

Due to the build-up of forces on the Russian border with Ukraine and in Belarus, Russia’s amphibious forces have received a great deal of news coverage. This includes no less than eight articles in The Drive’s The War Zone and regular reporting from USNI News, Forbes, Radio Free Europe, the French Navy, and numerous other media outlets.8 The coverage has generally focused on their progress and the viability and possible locations of amphibious assaults on Ukraine. While the capabilities, location, and destination of these ships are important, their movements and possible targets must be contextualized; the Russian Military has a distinct understanding of and approach to amphibious warfare. It also must be kept in mind that these forces only augment existing capabilities in the Black Sea Fleet and so should not be used as an indicator of readiness to initiate conflict.

Most commentary on possible Russian amphibious assaults in a war with Ukraine suggests targets such as Odessa and Mariupol or describes them as a feint.9 In November, the Chief of Ukrainian Military Intelligence suggested that amphibious assaults would target Odessa and Mariupol.10 Responding to this in the January 2022 issue of Proceedings, Col. (Ret.) Phillip G. Wasielewski, U.S. Marine Corps, suggested that such assaults would be incredibly risky.11 Still, the idea of amphibious assaults to seize major cities persists.12 However, when this scenario is compared with existing Russian amphibious warfare capabilities, the Russian theory and practice of amphibious warfare (and its Soviet antecedent), and the larger Russian deployment of forces, it becomes clear that Mariupol, Odessa, and other major urban areas or ports are unlikely targets for the Russian Naval Infantry. Conversely, it is unlikely that such forces are only a bluff, feint, or ruse.

February 9, 2022 video by  Ihlas News Agency entitled (in Turkish), “Russian Warships Advancing From The Dardanelles To The Black Sea One After One.”


Russia’s amphibious ships are moving in two groups with an estimated capacity of two regular battalions — one tank and one motorized infantry— with some space for artillery and air defenses. Alternatively, the groups could carry a Battalion Tactical Group.

Group 1: Baltic Fleet14

  • Пр.775/II [ROPUCHA-I] 127 Minsk
  • Пр.775/II [ROPUCHA-I] 102 Kaliningrad
  • Пр.775/III [ROPUCHA-II] 130 Korolyov

Group 2: Northern Fleet15

  • Пр.775/I [ROPUCHA-I] 012 Olenegorskii Gornyak
  • Пр.775/II [ROPUCHA-I] 016 Georgii Pobedonosets
  • Пр.11711 [IVAN GREN] 017 Peter Morgunov

A Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) is a task-organized combined arms force created by augmenting a Motor-Rifle Battalion (MRBn) with tanks, artillery, electronic warfare capabilities, air defenses, and other modern conveniences necessary for the mission at hand.16 It is the smallest regularly formed combined arms force in the Russian military capable of independent action.17 It is only the latest form of a type of unit which the Russians — and Soviets before them — have been iteratively developing and adjusting since the Second world War.18 A 1989 survey of Soviet professional literature on the topic found that only 12 of the 551 examined battalion-level actions involved a battalion acting without attachments or support, and none took place after 1972.19

From analyzing Russian exercises, it can be inferred that these two groups can carry a BTG. Zapad 2021 featured an amphibious assault exercise in which four Ropucha-class tank landing ships (LSTs) and two Zubr-class landing craft air cushion (LCACs) landed a Naval Infantry force.24 The four Ropucha-class offloaded “more than 40x BTR-80” while the two Zubr-class LCAC offloaded supporting vehicles. A Russian BTR-mounted infantry battalion has 44 BTR-80 variants, meaning that four Ropuchas can carry the entire infantry landing force of a BTG. This leaves two landing ships for whatever forces are attached — likely a mixture of tanks, artillery, and air defense vehicles. While the contents of their holds are unclear, a BTG is well within the six ships’ capacity and congruous with the Naval Infantry’s most probable mission in conflict: supporting the Russian Ground Forces.

Tank landing ship of the Russian Navy RFS Kaliningrad 102 (2012 Photo via Pacholski)

Theory and Practice

Whatever its size, this amphibious force is trained to conduct what the Russians call “десант” [desant]. Desant is the task of landing troops on the enemy’s territory to conduct combat operations.25 The role of the Naval Infantry in these landings is to support the action of the Ground Forces. The Russian Navy did not consider themselves able to conduct a brigade-scale landing — what they call an Operational Desant — in 2018, and there is no indication this has changed.26 The Kavkaz 2020 and Zapad 2021 exercises included landings by battalion-sized groupings. In particular, Zapad 2021 featured 4 Ropuchas landing a Naval Infantry Battalion while two Zubr-class landed the battalion’s attachments.27 This restricts the mission profile to Takticheskii Desant (Tactical Desant), defined as: desant used in an offensive battle or operation to destroy important enemy targets in the tactical and close-operational depths, preventing the maneuver of enemy troops and ensuring the high rate of advance.28

The archetypical Soviet-Russian Tactical Desant is conducted in the tactical depth to outflank an enemy defense or insert a force acting as a forward detachment for the main forces attacking along a coastline.29 These are both viable missions for a Naval Infantry BTG. The location of such a landing is dependent on the disposition of enemy forces and the landing force mission. However, the Russians do believe that surprise (Внезапность) is a prerequisite of success.30 Whether or not it is still possible to conceal an amphibious landing, it is likely Russia would seek to conceal the beachhead and axis of the main effort.31 A common method to achieve this is by presenting the enemy with information which confirms pre-existing incorrect assessments of the time, place, and scale of a landing. Operation Fortitude is a classic example of this technique, though Soviet practice went further, often conducting a secondary landing to continue the deception or split enemy attention.32 Examples of this include the January 1943 Taman landings by the 47th Army, the April 1942 Murmansk Offensive by the 14th Army, and the October 1944 landing at Malaya Volokovaya by the 63rd Naval Infantry Brigade.33

Soviet Amphibious Assault during the Novorossiysk-Taman Strategic Offensive Operation. Click to expand. (SSRC Soviet Amphibious Warfare, p. 41)

The Soviet-Russian school of amphibious assault also heavily features vertical envelopment by airborne or heliborne forces to support the landing. This could either be in support of seizing an initial beachhead or to assist the Naval Infantry force in achieving their objectives. One of the most common uses of vertical envelopment seen in Russian amphibious assault theory and practice is an initial landing of infantry and combat engineers to clear obstacles and provide security for the beachhead.34 This initial landing may be supplemented or replaced by landings from small assault boats, such as the Pr.03160 Raptor-class.35 Four of these boats were spotted on 30 January moving on the M4 highway between Moscow and Krasnodar via Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh.36

Click to expand. (Graphic via Grau and Bartles, Russian Way of War, p. 148.)

All six amphibious ships appeared loaded in pictures captured as they transited through Denmark.37 In addition, Frederik Van Lokeren noted that when the Northern Fleet Ropucha-class LST Aleksandr Otrakovsky and Georgiy Pobedonosets and Ivan Gren-class Pyotr Morgunov entered the Baltic on 11 January, “It appear[ed] that both Ropucha class vessels are fully loaded, with the RFS Pyotr Morgunov being partly loaded,” and that on 13 January at least a company of BTR-mounted Naval Infantry was seen leaving their barracks in Baltiysk.38 It is therefore possible that the BTG consists of Baltic Fleet Infantry and supporting assets from the Northern Fleet’s Naval Infantry units.


While these movements are cause for concern, the initiation of armed conflict is unlikely to be contingent on these forces. The Black Sea Fleet has seven LSTs organic to its forces, three Alligator-class and four Ropucha-class.39 Each Alligator-class has double the capacity of a Ropucha-class.40 These seven ships have far more capacity than the six amphibious ships from the Baltic and Northern Fleets.

While amphibious landings could undoubtedly assist in destabilizing Ukrainian defenses, the Russians have amassed a preponderance of forces near the Ukrainian border, equivalent to 12 divisions or over 75 BTG.41 It is highly unlikely that Russian planning is reliant on whether they can put two BTG over the shore instead of the single BTG they are currently able to land, or even whether they can land one maneuver battalion when they have deployed 12 divisions.

In sum: the Russians have moved loaded amphibious ships that double their landing capacity in the Black Sea to two BTGs. If they do conduct a landing, it will almost certainly be in support of the Ground Forces, not an attempt to seize major urban areas by coup de main. It is unlikely that Russian offensive plans are contingent on the amphibious forces which just entered the Black Sea. These forces represent less than 1/75th of deployed Russian maneuver battalions and far less than one percent of deployed Russian combat power when air assets and high-level indirect fire assets are considered.

The build-up phase of the Russo-Belarussian joint exercise was scheduled to end on 9 February. This is the date by which experts such as Rob Lee have stated that Russia’s deployment of forces would likely be complete.42 At the time of publishing on 10 February the Baltic and Northern Fleet amphibious forces have arrived in the Black Sea. However, these forces would only augment existing Black Sea Fleet capability and so should not be used as an indicator of Russian readiness for offensive action. On the other hand, these amphibious forces are unlikely to be a feint; the Russians have demonstrated the capability to land battalion-scale forces in the region, and such a landing fits into their theory and practice.

Benjamin Claremont graduated with an MLitt in Strategic Studies from the University of St Andrews School of International Relations in 2021. His dissertation, Peeking at the Other Side of the Fence: Lessons Learned in Threat Analysis from the US Military’s Efforts to Understand the Soviet Military During the Cold War, explored the impact of changing sources, analytical methodologies, and distribution schemes on US Army and US Navy threat analysis of the Soviet Military, how this impacted policy and strategy, and what this can teach in a renewed era of great power competition. He received his MA (Honours) in Modern History from the University of St. Andrews. He is interested in Strategy, Operational Art, Naval Warfare, and Soviet/Russian Military Science.





[4] These comprise: 4x Nanuchka-III-, 6x Parchim-, 2x Buyan-M-, 3x Karakurt-, and 6x Tarantul-class corvettes and missile boats. The fleet flagship, the Sovermenny-class destroyer Nastoychivy is currently in refit.












[16] Grau and Bartles, Russia’s View of Mission Command of Battalion Tactical Groups (2016), p. 5-7

[17] Grau and Bartles, Russian Way of War (2017), p. 37-40

[18] The Soviets habitually task-organized their battalions into combined arms formations throughout the Great Patriotic War. Grau, Combined Arms Battalion, p. 31

[19] Les Grau Soviet Combined Arms Battalion – Reorganization for Tactical Flexibility, p. 14.

[20] Grau and Bartles, Russian Way of War, p. 224

[21] Ibid p. 210

[22] Ibid p. 148, 267, 334

[23]As a task organized group these numbers are only loose estimates.


[25] VES 1986 p. 229 Note that desant is seen as the same fundamental activity no matter the mode of transport.

[26] Bartles, Russian Naval Infantry – Increasing Amphibious Warfare Capabilities, Marine Corps Gazette, (Nov. 2018), p. 64

[27] ; Note that this was not described as a BTG landing. This is perhaps due to the limited support or specific mission planned.

[28] Военный энциклопедический словарь 1986 edition (VES86), p. 229.

[29] Further Reading can be found in Leavenworth Paper 17: The Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation and SSRC Report CR-57 Soviet Amphibious Operations: Implications for the Security of NATO’s Northern Flank.

[30]; this is nearly unchanged from the late-soviet definition. For more discussion see: FM 100-2-1 (1990) p. 1-35:1-41 and Советская военная энциклопедия 1979 Edition (SVE79) Vol. 2, p. 161-163

[31] Soviet Amphibious Operations p. 58-59

[32] Soviet Amphibious Operations p. 59

[33] Soviet Amphibious Operations p. 59, Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation p. 89-91

[34] Vertical envelopment is often supplemented by personnel landed from small assault boats like the Pr.03160 Raptor-class.



[37] A friend in the Danish Navy who saw them sortie confirmed they were lower in the water than typical even for exercises.

[38], citing

[39] The Alligator-class is known to the Russians as Project 1171 Tapir.

[40] Apalkov, Landing Ships p. 8-9



Featured image: A photograph of Russian Ropucha-class Korolev followed by the French patrol vessel Flamant while transiting the English Channel (Credit :

The HMS Defender Incident: Lawfare, Optics, and a Changing European Strategic Direction

By Louis Martin-Vézian

On the morning of June 23, 2021, the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender departed its port of call in Odessa, Ukraine, and made way for Batumi, Georgia. While in transit, the destroyer conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) near the southwestern tip of Crimea, triggering a Russian reaction comprising at least three ships and dozens of aircraft. The incident is the latest flare-up in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, yet escalation risks from encounters in the maritime domain are often overplayed by inflammatory communiqués. The crux of the matter remains international law, and information warfare, while harmless posturing is simply the most visible outcome. Diving deeper reveals the determinants behind the UK’s actions, from operational imperatives to legal standings, but also a changing European strategic direction.

The Incident at Sea

Prior to the incident, Defender entered the Black Sea along with the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen to carry out exchanges and exercises with the Romanian, Ukrainian, and Georgian navies. Both ships are part of Carrier Strike Group 21, centered around the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. After departing Odessa, Defender proceeded towards the traffic separation scheme off Cape Florient at the southwestern tip of Crimea. While following the traffic separation scheme, the destroyer briefly entered one of three restricted navigation zones (highlighted in red on the map below) implemented contentiously by Russia within the 12 nautical mile limit of Crimea’s territorial waters.

A map of the events surrounding HMS Defender. Click to expand. (Author graphic)

Upon entering the restricted navigation zone, Russian Coast Guard vessels hailed Defender over the radio and urged it to turn away. After several further communications, a Russian Coast Guard vessel fired three short bursts high into the air, at an angle slightly offset to that of the British destroyer, only after several ‘avoid hit’ commands were given to the gunners. Traditionally, warning shots are fired across the bow of a targeted ship, as they are meant to be noticed and unambiguous. However, for uncertain reasons,1 it appears that in this case the Russian vessel was at least a kilometer behind Defender—hence qualifying the bursts as ‘warning shots’ is a stretch.

Regimes of International Law

The Defender’s transit through Crimean territorial waters came after Russia issued a Notice to Mariners (NOTMAR), which suspended the right of ‘innocent passage’ to foreign warships in the three previously mentioned restricted navigation zones from April 21 to October 31, 2021.2 The right of innocent passage is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Articles 17 to 32. UNCLOS allows for any ships to transit through the territorial waters of another nation if they follow certain broad conditions.

Under UNCLOS Article 25(3), coastal states can implement restrictions on navigation, provided they remain temporary, indiscriminate, and localized. The notice issued by Russia is problematic, not only because it discriminates between “foreign warships and other government ships” and other shipping, but also because it assumes Russia is the coastal state. This latter assumption is rejected both by any reasonable interpretation3 of international law and the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/262.4

However, another regime of international law is at play in Crimea and would support Russia’s NOTMAR—namely, the law of armed conflict and the law of occupation, as articulated by Prof. Stefan Talmon for GPIL – German Practice in International Law.5 The law of occupation provides the occupying power with a wider range of options to restrict navigation in occupied territorial waters as “land dominates the sea,6 and an occupying power inherits controlling rights over the occupied territory’s territorial waters. This would appear contradictory to Russia’s position regarding Crimea, as it no longer differentiates between Crimea and the rest of the Russian Federation since the contentious Crimea-Russia annexation treaty7 signed by Vladimir Putin on March 18, 2014, and ratifiedby the Duma and Federation Council on March 20 and 21, respectively.9

This contradiction between Russia’s best efforts to portray the annexation of Crimea as legitimate and effective, while at the same time subtly referencing rights conferred to occupying powers under the law of occupation, is both flagrant and irrelevant—the law of occupation is in effect whether the occupying power admits to its status or not.10

The Russian attempt to restrict navigation off Crimea would therefore appear to satisfy the conditions required under international law, but a final hurdle remains in the way of conferring it full legitimacy; the NOTMAR mentions “Russian territorial waters” while referring to the waters off Crimea, which is currently considered to be under “temporary occupation.” Prof. Talmon points out that the United States issued a similar NOTMAR during the occupation of Iraq, with the notable difference that it had appropriately referred to the waters in question as “Iraqi territorial waters.” Therefore, a state rejecting the annexation of Crimea would be inclined to ignore the Russian NOTMAR despite its otherwise robust legal standing.

Different Optics, Different Objectives

Following the incident, Russian government sources and media announced that Russian vessels and aircraft fired warning shots at Defender and dropped bombs in its path.11 The Russian government also filed a formal protest and summoned the British ambassador and defense attaché in Moscow. London denied both the shooting and the bombing, possibly on the grounds of lexical accuracy—as the Russian vessel fired ‘near’ and not ‘at’ the British ship—and appeared to present the scuffle as an unrelated gunnery exercise conducted by Russia.12 This would be a tongue-in-cheek way of dismissing the shots as coincidental, therefore watering down Russia’s confrontational narrative.

The presence of a BBC crew aboard Defender further enabled London to deny any excessive Russian declarations. Moscow later published a video13 filmed aboard one of its Coast Guard vessels, showing the moment it fired the alleged warning shots. However, evidence of the shooting had already been broadcasted by the BBC, so the Russian footage achieved little beyond showcasing the significant distance between the two ships, thereby bolstering the British narrative that the incident was over-exaggerated by Russia.

Released Russian video of HMS Defender interaction with Russian Coast Guard.

Strategic Context

The waters around Crimea are a niche aspect of the Ukrainian conflict to challenge. In the maritime domain, the most pressing issue remains the blocking of the Kerch Strait since 2018, for which no FONOP is realistically achievable.14 The British intent behind the FONOP is better unraveled through the strategic implications of the ‘special relationship’ between London and Washington than by any development in the Ukrainian conflict. By carrying out this FONOP in the Black Sea and dispatching the first planned Royal Navy carrier strike group in the Indo-Pacific since 1997,15 16 London is marking its return to the geopolitical scene, at home in Europe and abroad in the Indo-Pacific.

For the United States, having a partner willing to commit politically and operationally to a like-minded view of the global rules-based order is valuable, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin alluded to in his comments17 during the 2021 IISS’ Fullerton Lecture in Singapore. U.S. resources are increasingly scarce and being able to rely on a pro-active ally in Europe will prove helpful as the Pentagon shifts much of its focus from Europe to Asia. Finally, far from a unilateral move by Britain pursued in the wake of Brexit, this FONOP was supported by European partners, both in actions and words: in addition to the endorsement of the Netherlands via Evertsen, Germany was quick to officially denounce the Russian claims as a breach of international law after the incident.


Despite its limited immediate impact, the significance of this FONOP cannot be overstated. Since the end of the Cold War, very few European nations have taken initiatives to upend their strategic interests in the face of powerful adversaries and have instead been relying on the American security umbrella. A multitude of factors are at play to influence this return to geopolitics in Europe, from the specter of Trump’s alienating policies towards America’s allies and partners, to the advent of a multipolar world. Yet this FONOP and renewed European interest in the Indo-Pacific shows that even a strategically independent Europe will remain a natural partner to America for military cooperation and burden-sharing, not just due to shared economic interests, but also common values.

Louis Martin-Vézian is a French student of Economics and Politics at the University of London in Singapore. He has been producing maps and infographics for the past 6 years on his blog, CIGeography, with a focus on defense and security.


[1] Okhotnik-class patrol ships have a stated maximum speed of 27 knots, so it is possible they were outran by the 30+ knots of the British destroyer.




[5] be-very-problematic-and-in-part-contrary-to-international-law/




[9] The treaty is subject to its own controversies, as under international law, treaties must be signed between a minimum of two states; and the Republic of Crimea was never recognized as a state during its brief, forty-eight hours existence. See:





[14] Even ignoring legal hurdles, a FONOP in the Kerch Strait would be challenging, as a simple scuttling under the Kerch bridge could trap a foreign vessel in the Sea of Azov.

[15] HMS Illustrious during the ‘Ocean Wave 97’ cruise visited Tokyo and Hong Kong. See:

[16] In 2013, the HMS Illustrious was also dispatched to the Philippines to carry out humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan; but this deployment was a diversion from its intended course in the Persian Gulf. See:


Featured image: October 4, 2020 – HMS Defender sailing with the newly assembled, United Kingdom-led Carrier Strike Group 21. (Credit: Royal Navy Photo by LPhot Alker)