HELSINKI -- NATO launched a nearly two-week-long U.S.-led naval exercise in the Baltic Sea on Sunday. More than 7,000 sailors and airmen from 16 countries participated, including two nations that are aspiring to join NATO, Finland and Sweden.
In response to no specific threat, the annual BALTOPS naval exercise was established in 1972. The military alliance stated that NATO, with both Sweden and Finland participating in the exercise, is maximizing its chance to strengthen its joint force resilience. This was also true for two Nordic aspirants.
Both Sweden and Finland have a long history in military non-alignment. This was before their governments applied to NATO in May. It was a direct result from Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2014. Moscow repeatedly warned Helsinki, Stockholm and other Western countries against joining the Western military alliance over the years and threatened retaliatory actions if they did.
The top U.S. military official in Sweden, host to the BALTOPS 22 naval drill, stated that NATO should show support for the governments of Helsinki and Stockholm.
"It is important that we, the United States and other NATO countries, show solidarity with both Finland, Sweden and this exercise," U.S. General Mark Milley, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff said Saturday at a news conference aboard USS Kearsarge (large amphibious warship) moored in central Stockholm.
Milley spoke with Magdalena Andersson (the Swedish Prime Minister) and stressed the importance of the Baltic Sea as a strategic waterway -- "one the great seaways in the world."
According to him, Russia will find joining NATO by Finland and Sweden "very problematic". Russia would then be in a difficult military situation as the Baltic Sea's coast would be nearly completely surrounded by NATO members.
Turkey, a NATO member with good relations to Russia, objected that Finland and Sweden join the military alliance. They cited their support for a Kurdish terrorist group. The NATO chief tried to resolve the dispute.
Milley stated that the US has never moved a warship so large as the USS Kearsarge (843 feet), in Stockholm. It sailed through narrow passages in Stockholm archipelago.
Since the mid-1990s, Finland and Sweden participated in naval drills as NATO's close allies.
BALTOPS 22 will be ending in Kiel, Germany on June 17.
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