BERGEN , Sweden, May 4 (UPI) -- Naval forces of 10 NATO countries and Sweden gathered in Norway Monday to begin an annual submarine-hunting exercise, this year with increased relevance.
Although the drills are confined to the North Sea, the nearby Baltic Sea has been the site this year of reports of unidentified and foreign vessels in territorial waters. A craft believed to be a submarine was spotted off Finland's coast last week, and a mystery vessel was spotted near Sweden last year; most observers believe the vessels originated in Russia.
"Obviously, we're aware of the incidents that have happened in some of our partner nations' waters," said Rear Adm. Brad Williamson, commander of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 ships involved in the exercise. "I think for us what it does is it focuses our efforts and our training here." He declined to suggest the exercises were designed to send a message to Russia or to any other country.
Russia's involvement in Crimea and Ukraine, since 2014, has tightened relations between countries in Scandinavia and the Baltic region. Sweden has moved closer to the NATO alliance although not a member, and Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, each a NATO member and former Soviet republic, eagerly seek military aid, training and promises of defense support should Russia attempt to engage in military or political action. The 10-day military exercise, named "Operation Dynamic Mongoose," includes over a dozen warships and submarines from Germany, Sweden, Norway and the United States.