NATO Intercepts Russian Warships After Kremlin Warns U.S. Over Troops in Poland

Britain's Royal Navy teamed up with NATO vessels to escort nine Russian warships that encroached into waters close to the U.K. The move marks the latest tit-for-tat maneuver involving the countries' military forces amid tension between Moscow and the alliance.

Offshore patrol vessels HMS Mersey and HMS Mersey joined Type 23 frigate HMS Westminster and ships from the alliance to track three Steregushchiy-class corvettes, three Ropucha-class landing ships and the same number of missile-armed patrol boats, the Royal Navy said in a statement.

In some of the busiest sea lanes in the world, British ships worked with Portuguese frigate NRP Corte-Real, the task group's flagship, and supporting alliance vessels to escort the Russian ships, which had sailed into the North Sea from the Baltic Sea following its own large-scale exercises.

"While the Russian Navy operated in a safe and professional manner, HMS Westminster combined with NATO-allied units across the North Sea and Baltic Sea to escort them throughout," Commander Will Paston, commanding officer of HMS Westminster, said in a statement.

HMS Westminster
Military personnel stand on the deck of the British frigate HMS Westminster in Gibraltar on August 19, 2013. The vessel joined up with NATO vessels to escort Russian ships away from near British waters. MARCOS MORENO/Getty Images

Earlier this month, HMS Mersey and HMS Tyne tracked destroyer RFS Vice-Admiral Kulakov as it headed into the North Sea and through the English Channel.

While shadowing missions are routine for HMS Mersey and sister ships, this was the first time in recent years one had been carried out under the operational command of NATO.

Mathieu Boulègue, research fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Chatham House think tank, said that Russia was increasing its military posture and footprint around what is commonly referred to as the "GIUK gap" [Greenland-Iceland-UK], in a body of water that is key to North Atlantic security.

"Russia is demonstrating both capabilities and intent in terms of freedom of navigation and wants to prove it can operate unhampered in a potentially contested environment," he told Newsweek.

Russia's National Defense Management Center said in May its Northern Fleet's forces had escorted U.S. and U.K. ships that had entered the Barents Sea. This latest move was part of a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP).

"I call this the 'FONOP vicious circle'" Boulègue said, "Basically, just like other aspects of Russia-NATO relations, the actions of one party are feeding the insecurity of the other.

"Russia saber-rattling around the GIUK gap forces NATO to increase its presence through more FONOPs, which in turn is vindicating Russia's posture and drives the Kremlin to push further in the North Atlantic.

"This is feeding a circle of tit-for-tat, and potentially accident-prone, military behavior that needs to be addressed," Boulègue told Newsweek.

It comes amid heightened tensions between Moscow and the west, with the Kremlin condemning a new defense cooperation agreement signed by the U.S. and Poland.

Russian foreign affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a statement that the U.S.-Poland Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, giving American troops access to additional Polish military facilities, "aggravates the difficult situation near Russia's Western borders."