Britain has deployed fighter jets and a warship to the Arctic Circle amid concerns Russia is ‘exploiting’ melting ice caps in the High North.
The Royal Navy and Air Force have joined American and Norwegian forces in the icy shipping lanes of the High North to assert their position in a building row over a coveted shipping route.
Two RAF Typhoons and the Type 23 frigate HMS Sutherland are in the Barents Sea along with Britain’s key allies to assert ‘freedom of navigation’ in the important region that is ‘opening up’ as ice caps thaw.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed in an interview with the Mail Online the British forces were in the Barents Sea, and had passed as close as 50 nautical miles from the Russian coast.
He said the area would become a ‘normal area of operation’ for its Navy fleets, as he accused Russia of a show of dominance and exploitation of international maritime principles.
British forces are off the coastline near where Russian navy’s Northern Fleet is based near Severomorsk, he said.
Mr Wallace reportedly accused Russia of unlawfully asking countries to ‘clear their route 48 hours before transiting’ the Barents Sea.
It is a key area of interest for British military forces. The UK has in recent years joined Norwegian forces in ice conflict training exercises in the High North, as thawing ice creates a growing security threat over resources and shipping routes in the region.
The potential for the so-called ‘Ice Wars’ in future hinge on competition for oil, minerals and gas trapped under the surface of the melting Arctic ice caps.
It is feared that an an icy skirmish will erupt in the High North as the ice caps between Norway and Russia thaw and reveal the coveted bounty beneath.
In 2007, a pair of Russian submersibles sunk 14,000ft to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to plonk a titanium flag on the North Pole sea bed, in what was widely seen as a bold move to symbolically claim territory.
But Mr Wallace said the armed forces’ presence was over a shipping lane dispute, as the thawing of the passageways through the Barents Sea opened up competition over key shipping routes.
He said the routes were becoming ‘lucrative’: “With the thawing of the passageways up at the High North, over the last few years it has got more contested.
“The reason some of this has become more contentious is if it becomes a more substantial shipping route, it has the potential of cutting transit time from China to Europe by almost half.”
He accused the Russians of challenging navigation norms with its ‘inappropriate’ request that ships clear their passage before passing through the route.
Mr Wallace said: “The Russians are experimenting with new weapon systems and new submarines and for us it is in our interest to make sure we protect the northern approaches to Europe and our own homeland. Being forward of your own homeland is one way to make sure you protect that.”
Upholding international maritime law principles is important to Britain and other countries engaged in free trade movements, he added.
He added that the deployment was not meant to be a provocative move from Britain: “It is just enlarging what we do, being more present and more forward.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman told the Mail the High North is seeing changes to its security environment, and Russia was attempting to assert rights over maritime access.
The Navy’s warships were carrying out the exercise in one of the world’s most challenging environment’s, in freezing conditions, the spokesman added.
The MoD said it is the first time the UK has operated its RAF Typhoons in the High North, as they joined more than 1,200 military personnel from the three nations that took part in the operation.