Norway said it has discovered 10 submarines of the Russian northern fleet heading toward the Atlantic Ocean in the biggest such operation since the Cold War.
The deployment began just before Russia's foreign minister and the commander of the northern fleet visited Norway to commemorate 75th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Kirkenes from the Nazis.
Meanwhile, the recently floated Prince Vladimir submarine test-fired a Bulava ballistic missile from the White Sea near Arkhangelsk across 10 time zones to the Kamchatka peninsula across from Alaska on Wednesday.
Eight nuclear and two diesel submarines left bases near Murmansk early last week, and stayed submerged as they entered the Norwegian Sea, Norway's military intelligence agency told state broadcaster NRK.
That number would represent almost the entire underwater contingent of the northern fleet.
Some of the submarines are aiming to pass through the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap and enter the north Atlantic, according to Oslo.
“Russia wants to say that 'this is our sea, we can do this. We are able to reach the United States'. That's what Russia wants to tell us. They want to test the West's ability to detect and handle this,” the intelligence agency said.
The operation comes as the UK took delivery this week of the first of nine US-made Poseidon P-8A maritime patrol planes. The aircraft are slated in 2020 to begin monitoring the growing Russian submarine activity in the Arctic, previously one of Britain's key roles in Nato. Norway operates much older P-3 Orion turboprop patrol planes.
While Moscow hasn't commented on the Norwegian report, the northern fleet said on Saturday that two titanium-hulled Sierra class nuclear submarines in the Norwegian Sea were conducting dives at their maximum depths and would be testing new weapons.
That was less than 24 hours after Russian and Norwegian military commanders lunched together at celebrations of the countries' Second World War alliance in Kirkenes, near Norway's Arctic border with Russia.
Norwegian intelligence said two submarines were guarding the entrance to the Barents Sea and another pair was located west of Bear island in the Svalbard archipelago. It claimed that the operation was designed to last two months.
Russian defence analyst Alexander Golts said he couldn't remember such a “massive deployment” by the northern fleet. He noted that it followed an embarrassment at the annual Thunder exercises this month, when a Pacific fleet submarine failed to test-fire a ballistic missile, reportedly due to a launch systems failure.
If accurate, the deployment of 10 submarines was a “very big and definite statement” about the growing naval capabilities of a country that has struggled to keep large numbers of such vessels at sea since the Cold War, according to Justin Bronk of The Royal United Services Institute.
It also showed Russia's ability to defend the Arctic “bastion” where its ballistic missile submarines lurk, a major part of its nuclear deterrence, he said.
“The ability to put lots of boats in the way of any Nato forces coming up from the north Atlantic or the North Sea, it's a big feature of Russian active defence capability,” Mr Bronk said.
Even as Russian submarines sailed west, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met the king and prime minister of Norway at a memorial to Soviet soldiers in Kirkenes on Friday.
After talks with his Norwegian counterpart Ine Eriksen Søreide, Mr Lavrov said Nato's increasing training activities in Norway, in which the Royal Marines have also participated, were destabilising to the northern European security. Ms Søreide expressed concern about Russian naval exercises off the coast of northern Norway in August, the largest since 1985.
Defence minister Frank Bakke-Jensen told NRK that Norway was investing in its “military capability to monitor and operate in the northern territories” in response to the modernised and increasingly active Russian forces.