As Vladimir Putin was declaring that western liberal democracy was obsolete, a major military exercise was taking place in the Baltic with the aim of ensuring that the Russian president’s vision of a new order was not imposed through force.
Over 4,000 service personnel and 44 ships from seven different countries in the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) are taking part in the mission in Lithuania, close to Moscow’s exclave in Kaliningrad.
The exercise, which sees the largest presence of the royal navy in the Baltic Sea for more than a century, is the latest in a series by western forces in eastern and northern Europe and has drawn repeated accusations from the Kremlin of deliberate acts of provocation.
The UK is viewed as particularly keen to ensure a strong message is sent to Russia at a time when relations between the two countries are at their lowest ebb since the Cold War, following the chemical agent attack in Salisbury.
Theresa May, meeting Mr Putin in Osaka for the G20 summit – the first time officially face to face since the novichok attack – had publicly demanded the extradition of the two GRU Russian military intelligence officers accused over the poisoning and also, at a private meeting, condemned him for his views on liberalism and tolerance.
The JEF is not a Nato mission, with Sweden and Finland both non-members of the Alliance.
Its air, land and marine components can be deployed anywhere in the world but the focus for the foreseeable future would be the Baltic.
Speaking on board the royal navy ship HMS Albion, taking part in the Operation Baltic Protector, Britain’s defence secretary warned of the rising military and political challenge posed by the Kremlin.
“Russia is becoming more assertive, we see her deploying more forces and new weapons and we can imagine scenarios that may play out in future. So it is important and right that we stand together with our allies,” said Penny Mordaunt.
“What we have seen here is the largest royal navy deployment in the Baltic Sea for more than a hundred years.
“That gives us an adaptable force, the ability to deploy more than 10,000 people on the whole variety of missions, independently or as part of Nato operations ... we have shifted our budgets to be more focused on the region.”
Responding to Mr Putin’s claims about the supposed demise of liberal democratic values, Ms Mordaunt said: “We need to defend our democratic values. These provide us with the basis of society like freedom, the rule of law, property rights. This is why an international rules-based order is so important.
“However, we also have to accept that there are countries which have different values and we need to engage with them. We hope that Russia will change its ways.”
Raimundas Karoblis, Lithuania’s defence minister, commented: “We have repeatedly seen Russian aggression and how they view international laws. This meeting is an excellent example of solidarity and unity. We are especially pleased that this meeting is taking place in Lithuania.
“We are sending a clear message with this exercise ... We aim to show that we have ways to respond to security challenges. These Joint Expeditionary Forces are a quick response tool that we need to address the emerging threats.”
The Russian threat was not just overt military action, Mr Karoblis held, but also widely covert, with the use of hybrid operations such as cyberattacks and propaganda.
“This is something we are very concerned about and we have measures to counter things such as cyber attacks” he said.
The defence minister rejected Mr Putin’s assertion about the fall of liberal values.
“Just look at the state of the Russian economy, it is in a pretty bad way and people are unhappy, so I don’t see how his values are working,” he said.
Speaking in neighbouring Latvia, defence minister Artis Pabriks wanted to stress the need for the west to recognise the threat posed by the Kremlin.
“Being a border country, we have been facing Russian aeroplanes, Russian ships next to our border, daily. Of course, they are also interfering from time to time, as far as political events happening in our country,” he said.
“And what is happening in the Baltics you can consider as a litmus test for Russian hybrid against many other western nations ... the elections in the US or in France, or Brexit ... Or elections to the European parliament, because their purpose is to create a larger influence in global world by diminishing the opponent’s power.”
As well as Britain and Lithuania, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland and Sweden are taking part in Operation Baltic Protector.
The UK is also heading an international Nato battalion in Estonia and has deployed around 900 troops in this country.
Around 120 British troops with an Apache helicopter also took part in a separate international military land force exercise, Iron Wolf, which recently ended in Lithuania.
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