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US warship calms Swedish NATO nerves – POLITICO

STOCKHOLM — In the Swedish capital this weekend, everyone was talking about the American warship.

Docked in the main waterway connecting Stockholm to the Baltic Sea, the towering presence of the USS Kearsarge towered over the city center, its 253-meter-long silhouette creating a new militaristic skyline against the early 1960s sun. summer.

A couple of Danish tourists walking along the waterfront have speculated that the arrival of the US ship may have something to do with Sweden’s recent request – alongside Finland – to join NATO, or maybe it just reflected the underlying cause of these candidacies: the darkening of the regional security picture following the nearby Russian attack on the Ukraine.

“I can see why they want to join NATO,” one of the tourists told his companion. “There’s so much uncertainty about where things are going.”

The reality is that the Kearsarge has a double mission in the Swedish capital.

Officially, the ship’s visit to Stockholm is to take part in a military training exercise involving 14 NATO states plus Finland and Sweden, which will test the ability of those nations’ navies, air forces and armies to work together. The exercise, called Baltops, will run throughout the week and will include landing exercises along the Swedish and German coasts.

But the Kearsarge is also in the Swedish capital to let Russia know that the United States is watching Sweden and Finland.

The two small Nordic states applied to join NATO two weeks ago, but their applications, which are already expected to take months, have become entangled in objections from current member Turkey.

Sweden and Finland are now going through a sensitive “grey period” between candidacy and full NATO membership — with the mutual defense commitment which involves — and questions have been raised about what protection countries can expect from the United States and others in the weeks and months ahead.

“Strong enough statement”

At a press conference on the deck of the Kearsarge on Saturday, General Mark Milley, the top US military commander, said the warship’s visit to Stockholm was partly designed to answer those questions.

“I think Kearsarge’s presence here is a pretty strong statement,” Milley said. “We are committed to a rules-based international order…and to the idea that strong and powerful countries cannot just arbitrarily attack smaller and weaker countries, as we saw in Ukraine.”

Alongside Milley, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said the US warship’s arrival showed US President Joe Biden was keeping the commitments he made to her and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö during the visit of the two Nordic leaders at the White House last month.

“It shows that President Biden’s security assurances are followed by action,” she said.

The way the Baltops exercise is being conducted provides insight into how the Swedish and Finnish ‘grey period’ is likely to be handled over the coming months. The strategy appears to be to execute a tight schedule of training drills – which also included the recently concluded Siil exercise around Estonia — maintaining a strengthened NATO presence in the Baltic Sea region.

Baltops itself will be around 30% larger this year than in 2021 and will involve 45 ships and 76 aircraft. Gen. Milley, who is chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, said President Biden had instructed military leaders to “modestly increase” activity beyond the “significant program” already planned.

Speaking alongside Milley on the Kearsarge, Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said he could see “a future here with many activities that make our part of Europe safer…during this sensitive period from now until we are full members of NATO”.

“We will have warships in the Baltic Sea over the next few months and we will also have an air force presence in our airspace,” Hultqvist said.

baltops exercise

Below deck of the Kearsarge, an attack helicopter was being examined in what an engineer on board said was called a phase inspection. A team of mechanics disassembled the plane to inspect it and then reassembled it. On Saturday afternoon, the team was preparing to reinstall the rotor blades and rebuild the tail.

A deck below, rows of all-terrain vehicles were parked in front of three large air-cushioned landing craft that would deploy troops and machinery ashore during this week’s exercise.

On Tuesday, a landing of 250 American soldiers on the Swedish island of Gotland, strategically located in the Baltic Sea, was to take place as part of the Baltops training.

General Milley’s presence on the ship created a buzz as he moved among US Marines handing out what looked like medallions.

“Don’t lose this; it’s worth the money on eBay,” he joked with a Marine.

In his briefing to reporters, Milley reviewed the ship’s firepower.

“You’ve seen the type of planes that are here: you’ve got attack planes, you’ve got Harrier Jump Jets,” he said. “You’re looking at somewhere around 1,200 Marines capable of executing battalion-sized amphibious assaults from the sea to project power ashore,” he said.

But when asked what message Moscow should get from the Kearsarge’s presence in the Baltic, Milley differed.

“I will let the message be determined by what Moscow thinks the message is,” he said. “It’s not up to me to send a message. We are here to do military training.


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