By Tom Whitehead
Britain and Nato have launched their biggest war games on Russia’s doorstep amid growing tensions over Vladimir Putin’s military aggression.
The largest ever Nato anti-submarine exercise, including the Royal Navy, is under way off the coast of Norway just weeks after reports of Russian submarines encroaching in to foreign waters.
At the same time British troops are taking part in the biggest military exercise seen in Estonia since the Baltic nation regained its independence more than two decades ago.
The war games come as tensions grow with Russia over Ukraine crisis and fears that the Baltic nations could be next in President Putin’s sights.
The commander of the Nato manoeuvres said recent incidents by the Russian military were a “cause of concern” and added “relevance to the exercise”.
At least 18 ships and submarines are taking part in Operation Dynamic Mongoose which involves 10 Nato members and Sweden.
The submarines will take turns trying to approach and target the ships, including HMS Portland, undetected to simulate an attack in one of the world’s most hostile sea areas.
Last month, Latvia said it had detected a Russian submarine near its water and last week Finland fired depth charges at an unidentified submarine along its coast.
Russian aircraft have also repeatedly approached and violated Nordic and Baltic airspace in recent months, challenging air defences and triggering allied responses.
US Rear Admiral Brad Williamson, commander of the exercise, said: “Russia has a right to be at sea, just as we do.
“But the incidents we have seen are not in line with international regulations and that’s been the cause of concern.
“This is not a response to that but provides relevance to the exercise.”
Nordic defence ministers issued a strongly worded condemnation of Russia last month, calling it the biggest threat to security, prompting Russia to say that Finland’s and Sweden’s closer ties with Nato were of “special concern”.
“The Russians have increased their activity a lot and so have we,” said Kai Nickelsdorf, the commander of Germany’s U33 submarine, which is playing the role of an enemy in the exercise.
Captain Iain Breckenridge, the most senior British officer taking part, said: “This exercise provides a great opportunity for these surface and air units to test their skills, equipment and tactical procedures against our extremely capable submarines.”
In Estonia, British troops have joined around 7,000 local Reservists for the country’s biggest military exercise since leaving Soviet Union control in 1991.
Britain and its Nato allies are attempting to reassure the Baltic states they will be protected against any Russian aggression.
In February, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, warned that the Baltics, who have many ethnic Russians, could be next in Mr Putin’s sights for a Crimea-style annexation.