May 4 (UPI) -- U.S. Navy ships entered the Barents Sea on Monday, between Norway and Russia above the Arctic Circle, for the first time since the 1980s, the Navy said.
The mission, the Navy said in a statement, is "to assert freedom of navigation and demonstrate seamless integration among allies."
The Russian Defense Ministry quickly announced that the fleet of five vessels, including one from Britain's Royal Navy, is being closely monitored.
The guided-missile destroyers USS Donald Cook and USS Porter, the large supply vessel USNS Supply and the British frigate HMS Kent entered the Barents Sea after conducting anti-submarine drills in the nearby Norwegian Sea. They were joined by the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Roosevelt.
Norway and the United States are NATO allies, although Norway was noticeably not involved in the exercise. The Russian military was notified of the operation.
"In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that we maintain our steady drumbeat of operations across the European theater, while taking prudent measures to protect the health of our force," said Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, U.S. 6th Fleet commander.
"We remain committed to promoting regional security and stability, while building trust and reinforcing a foundation of Arctic readiness," Franchetti said.
Within hours of the convoy's arrival, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it was monitoring the ships.
"The [Russian] Northern Fleet's assets have begun tracking NATO's surface action group," it said. The Northern Fleet is based on the coast of the Kola Peninsula and uses the Barents Sea for access of its surface ships and submarines to the North Atlantic Ocean.
The anti-submarine drills and the arrival of the ships in the Barents Sea were conducted without the participation of the Norwegian Navy.
In October 2019, Norway decided not to join the NATO-backed missile defense program, days after Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg met with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
"Do the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy exercises in the Barents- and Norwegian Seas defend trans-Atlantic sea lanes or threaten the Russian Bastion defense and its nuclear deterrence and therefore strategic stability," Gjedssø Bertelsen the Arctic University of Norway commented.
"Norway abstained from these exercises, perhaps understanding the danger to its bilateral relationship with Russia from threatening Russia's nuclear deterrence," Bertelsen added.