To mark a visit by Swedish parliamentarians to the U.S. Navy command ship Mount Whitney, the destroyer Forrest Sherman flew a huge Swedish flag and blared music by the Swedish pop band ABBA from its loudspeakers. It was a moment of levity that belied the deadly serious politics underlying a 12-day, Baltic military exercise. BALTOPS 2009, involving 11 European nations and the U.S., risks provoking Russia, at a time when the Obama administration is working hard to restore U.S.-Russian relations.
When the annual exercise was conceived in the 1970s, it focused on preparing NATO nations and their allies for war with the Soviet Union. Today, the exercise stresses humanitarian assistance and procedures for deploying naval forces to destinations outside Europe, particularly for counterpiracy missions, according to Rear Adm. John Christenson, the top U.S. officer for BALTOPS 2009. Nevertheless, one Russian academic told the independent Pravda online newspaper that the exercise amounted to a NATO effort to align neutral nations against Russia.
This year's exercise, running from June 8 to June 19, includes naval units from Estonia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S. Russia participated as recently as 2008, but declined to participate this year. The planning for BALTOPS 2009 began just a month after Russia's ground war with NATO partner country Georgia, late last summer. The U.S. and NATO suspended military cooperation with Russia in the wake of the Georgia conflict. U.S. warships ran a Russian blockade to deliver humanitarian aid to the Georgian people.