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NATO navies play crucial background role in Ukrainian war (Opinion)

20th April 2022 - 11:00 GMT | by Giovanni Rasio in London

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NATO warships during Exercise Cold Response 2022. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)

Although NATO navies have not intervened directly against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the alliance increased its readiness and strengthened its maritime posture.

NATO naval assets have been on point from the Arctic to the Mediterranean to deter further Russian aggressive actions and have actively contributed to safeguarding the alliance’s borders since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Over the last two months, NATO allies have deployed roughly 80 vessels across Europe, both through previously planned exercises and extraordinary circumstances.

As demonstrated by the recent events in the Black Sea – with the missile strike against the Slava-class cruiser Moskva – the role of naval assets remains in the spotlight. While the war in Ukraine is luring the attention of public opinion primarily for the Western supply of weapon systems or land operations, the naval domain has a critical role in the Ukrainian conflict.

However, even from a maritime point of view, the risk is looking at the war from a purely limited geographical perspective, overlooking the broader magnitude that the war is having in the wider Euro-Atlantic area.

Unlike the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, when NATO bolstered its naval posture in the Black Sea with the deployment of several units in the area, the implementation by Turkey of its powers under the Montreux Convention is preventing warships from passing through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Despite the boundaries set by international law, NATO ships prominently contribute to the broader security of the Euro-Atlantic alliance, albeit not in proximity to the Ukrainian front.

Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) from the Italian, French and US navies sailed through the waters of the Mediterranean Sea In February and March 2022. ITS Cavour (C-550), FS Charles de Gaulle (R-91) and USS Truman (CVN-75) conducted tri-carrier operations aimed at fostering the level of interoperability and supporting maritime security in the central and eastern Mediterranean.

More than 15 vessels – including frigates, destroyers, cruisers, and submarines - were involved, and the carrier-based air assets performed air policing missions across NATO’s eastern flank. While the Truman was supposed to participate in the NATO Cold Response 2022 exercise, its deployment in the Mediterranean was extended amid the situation in Ukraine.

ITS Cavour, FS Charles de Gaulle and USS Truman conducted joint operations in the Mediterranean. (Photo: Italian Navy)

Interestingly, the tri-carrier operations occurred when the Russian Navy deployed several units – such as RTS Marshal Ustinov (055), RTS Varyag (011) and Improved Kilo-class submarines – in the eastern Mediterranean, operating from the naval facility in Tartus, Syria.

Meanwhile, off the shores of Norway, one of the largest NATO exercises was taking place: Cold Response 2022. In March, almost 50 ships from 27 countries participated in the drill. Two aircraft carriers were involved: HMS Prince of Wales (flagship of NATO’s Maritime High Readiness Force) and the ITS Garibaldi (C-551).

Taking into account the units of the two Standing NATO Maritime Groups, the vessels that joined Cold Response 2022, the Standing NATO Maritime Countermeasures Groups and the three CSGs in the Mediterranean, almost 80 warships were operating in the context of NATO operations at the same time.

It was also noteworthy and rare that five aircraft carriers — from four different navies — were at sea at the same time.

By looking at the NATO mobilisation of naval forces, it is evident that the alliance has reacted to the Russian renewed aggressiveness by increasing its readiness and strengthening its posture. But how has this massive deployment of hardware affected the Russo-Ukrainian War?

On a more operational level, NATO naval forces actively contribute to protecting and stabilising Europe’s eastern flank by shadowing the Russian vessels in the Mediterranean basin and providing air and missile cover.

Air assets embarked on the USS Truman have reportedly conducted almost 75 air patrolling missions over eastern Europe. These tasks, coupled with operations performed in conjunction with other land-based NATO platforms, play a significant part in safeguarding the alliance’s borders.

From a strategic perspective, as outlined in the Alliance Maritime Strategy, NATO naval forces demonstrated their critical contribution to deterrence, collective defence, and crisis management. Once again, the unique capabilities of navies provided NATO with a high level of flexibility, mobility, and freedom of operation.

Therefore, although not physically operating in the Black Sea, the presence of NATO warships is of foremost importance in today’s Europe. On the one hand, Cold Response 2022 displayed in practical terms how NATO navies contribute to deterrence and collective defence through ‘deploying, sustaining, and supporting effective expeditionary forces.

On the other hand, the tri-carrier operations in the Mediterranean showcased NATO’s critical ability to carry out power projection missions jointly.

The new Alliance Strategic Concept will be released after the June 2022 Madrid Summit. Given the extensive use that NATO has resorted to its fleet, it will be interesting to see whether the maritime dimension of the North Atlantic Alliance will become even more pivotal or simply be updated.

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