Russia is trying to show its reach and capability by conducting naval military exercises off the southwest coast of Ireland next month, two former US military commanders have said.
The Kremlin plans to conduct military drills 240km off the Irish coast in international waters but within Irish-controlled airspace and the State’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Retired US navy admiral James Stavridis, who was Nato's supreme allied commander in Europe from 2009 to 2013, said Russia considers the waters off the Irish coast as "extremely strategic" particularly at a time of escalating tensions with the West over Ukraine.
The area – known as the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom “gap” – was a pathway for Russian nuclear submarines to deploy into the Atlantic Ocean, Mr Stavridis told The Irish Times.
“As a result, during heightened tensions with the West, they will seek to demonstrate their ability to operate through these waters, not to put pressure on Ireland per se, but rather to demonstrate to the West their formidable maritime capabilities.”
Retired US commander Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who was commanding general of the US army in Europe from 2014 to 2018, said the drills were part of a wider strategy to show the Kremlin’s “reach” beyond the Black Sea and Baltic Sea into the Arctic Ocean and north Atlantic.
He said that it was concerning that Russian was attempting to “challenge” in the Atlantic.
He connected the drills to the Kremlin’s wider efforts to extend its influence in the Arctic Ocean and around Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago seen as a gateway for Russian naval vessels moving from the shallow Barents Sea into the deeper North Atlantic.
“This is part of an effort to develop their presence and localise it in the North Atlantic and that is why they are in your neighbourhood,” he said.
He said the drills will be used by the Kremlin to measure the West’s response, such as gaps in radar and the ability to track their movements with ships and reconnaissance aircraft. They could also be aimed at distracting from Russian activity in Ukraine and the Black Sea, he said.
The choice of the Porcupine Seabight, south west of the Co Cork coast, for the drills – where transatlantic subsea cables are located – may be an effort by the Russians to “develop an understanding and build some capabilities and options” should tensions escalate over Ukraine, said Mr Hodges.
“If there is another attack in Ukraine, if the Russians expand their offensive and this spills over and it becomes something bigger – and if we got into a conflict some time in the next few years – any transatlantic movements will not be uncontested,” he said.
An undersea fibre-optic cable providing important internet and communications connections between mainland Norway and the Svalbard archipelago failed two weeks ago in as-yet unexplained circumstances with suspicions falling on Russia.
Mr Stavridis, who was tipped as a potential US Democratic vice-presidential candidate for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said that the European Union was an "appropriate forum" for Ireland as a neutral EU nation to raise "quite legitimate" concerns about the military exercises.
“Militaries can pass through an EEZ but should not conduct exercises and operations there without coordination with the host nation,” he said.
Russian has consulted with the Irish State authorities on the naval drills, but Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said that the military exercises are "not welcome."
Russia's ambassador to Ireland Yury Filatov has said that the military exercises were not a threat to Ireland and would be "a small exercise – maybe three or four ships."
Mr Hodges said that the Irish Government could also voice concerns about Russia's planned exercises through its membership of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the international democracy and security body.