Two aircraft carrier groups operated jointly in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time since 2016 while Navy leaders ashore met with the U.S. ambassador to Russia this week, steps that analysts say are meant to send a message of strength to Moscow.
The USS Abraham Lincoln and USS John C. Stennis strike groups arrived this week to drill with regional partners at a time when Russia has increased its naval activity in the region and has engaged in conflict with NATO partner Ukraine at sea.
On Monday, Naval Forces Europe and Africa commander Adm. James Foggo met with Ambassador Jon Huntsman at the U.S. Navy base in Naples, partly to discuss America’s tense relations with Moscow.
“We seek a better relationship with Russia, but that can only happen when Russia stops its aggressive behavior and creates space for productive dialogue,” Huntsman said in a statement. “We will continue to impose cost on Russia when it takes actions aimed at our partners and allies and U.S. national security interests.”
The U.S. military and its NATO allies and partners have ratcheted up activity throughout Eastern Europe in a bid to reassure nations bordering Russia since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
More recently, Russia has increased activity in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, culminating in a November incident in which Russia fired on three Ukrainian ships and arrested sailors transiting between the waterways. A few weeks before that, Navy officials said that a Russian fighter jet made multiple unsafe aerial passes near a Navy surveillance aircraft over international waters in the Black Sea.
Russia’s aggressive actions and its intervention in Syria, Libya and elsewhere destabilize these areas, Foggo said in a statement.
“It’s crucial that we give our civilian leaders options and the ability to negotiate from a position of strategic strength,” Foggo said. “Our deployments and military presence is to deter and defend. It is to prevent, not provoke, a conflict.”
Sending the two carrier groups together is definitely aimed at Russia, harking back to Cold War power plays in the Mediterranean, said Jim Holmes, professor of strategy at the Naval War College.
“A sea power such as ourselves must be able to command those waters; otherwise, it can’t hope to project power inland and will be powerless to shape events in Eurasia,” Holmes said.
Stennis recently operated in the Pacific and Indian oceans; the Lincoln deployed from Norfolk three weeks ago.
“It’s a rare opportunity to train with two carrier strike groups together,” Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, the 6th Fleet commander, said in a statement, adding that it shows the Navy’s “ironclad commitment to the stability and security of the region.”
Three years ago, the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower converged in these waters during the height of the war against Islamic State. Both aircraft carriers launched airstrikes against ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq.
Moscow has sought to strengthen its alliance with Turkey through the sale of an S-400 missile defense system and with Syria by backing the Assad regime. Both countries could enable the Russian navy to increase its presence in the region.
The two carrier groups also are not far from Libya, where renegade general Khalifa Hifter’s forces are attacking Tripoli. Hifter’s battle with militias defending the capital prompted U.S. Africa Command to withdraw American troops from the city.
AFRICOM officials said they have conducted airstrikes in Libya against terrorists and indicated earlier this month they might be open to assisting the United Nations-backed government if asked.
The carriers’ joint deployment is not tied to Libya’s unrest, 6th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Kyle Raines said Tuesday. The dual operation was planned months before fighting broke out there, Raines said.
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