Two hundred thousand soldiers are said to have taken part in Russia's ZAPAD military exercise this fall.
Troops trained for possible conflict with neighbours to the west.
The drill took place mostly in Belarus; on the Baltic States' and Poland's borders.
To Russia, it is important to show what its forces are capable of...
...or what they might be capable of.
NATO paid close attention to the exercise, but it is still unclear whether 200,000 soldiers actually participated, or whether there were fewer, or maybe even more.
Russia's formidable Northern Fleet has been expanded significantly over the past decade. The fleet's headquarters are in Severomorsk, a secretive city on the Kola Peninsula, closed to the public.
Late this summer, three ships from the Northern Fleet set off from the Kola Peninsula. The initial intent was to go on an annual Arctic voyage. But the mission changed, and the ships ended up off the shores of Iceland.
On 11th August, a destroyer named after the city of Severomorsk set off along with the tugboat Pamir and the tanker Sergei Osipov. The plan was to sail along the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic after training in the Barents Sea; a two-month, annual trip. Russia is keen to project power around the northern shipping route that runs east along Russia toward Siberia and eventually the Pacific.
The first stop was around the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land for drills with the Russian Coastguard, where an attack by foreign agents was simulated. But following the drill, the convoy suddenly took a sharp turn to the west instead of continuing east.
On 18th August, Norwegian authorities became aware that the three ships were off the coast of Svalbard and at least one of them seemed to circle the archipelago.
This changing operational pattern has been observed for a while, said Katarzyna Zysk, an expert on Russian military affairs and professor of international relations and contemporary history at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, which is part of the Norwegian Defence University College.
"For instance, Russia would be normally conducting live fire shooting far away from the Norwegian coast, but we've seen exercises that are taking place very close to the Norwegian-Russian border," she said, noting that of course this attracts the attention of the public and of the Norwegian authorities.
After leaving Svalbard, the ships headed south toward the Greenland Sea, between Iceland and Greenland, which in itself isn't unusual. The ships travelled in international waters.
But on 20th August, two ships were spotted off the north-eastern coast of Iceland, within the country's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
When the Icelandic authorities became aware of the voyage, two Coastguard helicopters were sent to identify the ships. The Coastguard vessel Þór was also dispatched, and crews on fishing trawlers shared photos of the Russian vessels.
The Russians were clearly not trying to keep a low profile, as they repeatedly contacted nearby Icelandic ships.
This is quite unusual, said Katarzyna Zysk, especially since the ships were in the same place for a long time. That Russia is choosing to move to the area to stay for such a long time, she said, "it's something that we haven't seen that much before. But this is in that way not a new element."
Severomorsk, however, was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the destroyer wasn't even nearby — it had started a round trip around Iceland.
Severomorsk is more than 150 metres long, equipped with both missiles and torpedoes to destroy submarines. It also carries two helicopters intended for submarine warfare, and apparatus to disrupt electrical equipment.
The Icelandic authorities asked Russia to explain the unannounced visit, but no reply was forthcoming. Kveikur also sought explanation from the Russian authorities, and also reached out to a group of Russian experts for their opinion, to no avail.
However, according to an August press release from the Russian Ministry of Defence, the ships were sent in Iceland's direction to respond to and monitor NATO warships and an unexpected aerial exercise in the northeastern part of the Norwegian Sea, east of Iceland. Russian media reports even said the presence of Russian ships disrupted the exercise.
Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, Iceland's minister for foreign affairs, found those claims far-fetched. "But they do have their own rhythm in international affairs, as we know," he said in an interview with Kveikur.
"It's perhaps a little different from what we're used to from the countries we compare ourselves with and cooperate with the most. Statements like these, on closer inspection, do not stand up to scrutiny."
He said these NATO exercises were not of such magnitude that they required any reaction from Russia. "And claiming so is a bit unfair," he said. "But it doesn't necessarily come as a surprise that it was used as an excuse."
Russia is in fact annoyed by what it considers to be the militarisation of its immediate neighbours at the behest of NATO. Russia's attitude was on display at a bilateral meeting between Sergei Lavrov, Russia's minister for foreign affairs, and his Icelandic colleague Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson in Iceland this spring.
Lavrov expressed his concern about the conduct of neighbouring countries, stating that relations with Norway had always been good. "But there are unresolved issues related to militarisation and build-up in Norway and the Baltic states," he said.
The Canadian frigate HMCS Fredericton is currently leading the Standing NATO Response Force Maritime Group 1 in the North Atlantic. When the Russian ships approached Iceland, the frigate was south of the Faroe Islands but headed straight north, to Iceland, when news came of the Russian vessels. The Icelandic Coastguard actually picked up an injured sailor from onboard the frigate. Fredericton then monitored the Russian ships.
A NATO spokesman in Brussels confirmed to Kveikur that the movements of the Russian ships had been monitored. In recent years, Russian military marine traffic in the region has increased significantly. It is particularly noticeable how often Russian submarines stayed in the area, the spokesman added. In addition, the submarines' deployments were much longer than in the past.
"This is just one manifestation of what we have actually seen going on since the annexation of Crimea,“ said Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, the Icelandic foreign minister. „We have seen a different scenario in the security environment in this part of the world. And it is manifested in various ways."
"We see it perhaps best in the fact that the Nordic countries, and in fact all the countries we compare ourselves with, have been increasing their spending on security and defence. Sweden re-instated their mandatory military service a few years ago. And they have made the biggest increase in defence spending since World War One. It's all because of Russia's increased military build-up."
But the location of the Russian ships is also noteworthy, as the Farice submarine cable comes ashore not far from where they stayed off the Icelandic coast. For several years, NATO has expressed grave concern that Russia has both the capacity and the possible will to tamper with submarine cables — although there is debate about why they would do so and what exactly they would be able to do with hard-to-reach fibreoptic cables on the bottom of the ocean.
Experts interviewed by Kveikur said that Russia primarily wants to demonstrate that it has the technology to tamper with submarine cables, but that not even the most advanced countries have the capacity to process the massive stream of data flowing through the cables, and that there were always alternative routes for the data anyway.
On 23rd August, a few days after the Russian warships appeared off the north-eastern coast of Iceland, three United States B2 bombers arrived in Iceland's Keflavík Airport for training. The planes flew sorties with planes from the United Kingdom and Norway. US military spokesmen described it as an historic event and important for the balance of power in the region — Keflavík was a new forward station for the bombers. The Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, however, quoted a retired Russian general as saying that this would force Russia to strengthen its forces and increase defence spending to defend the northern shipping route.
Michael Paul is an expert at the German research institute Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin. He said the arrival of the bombers got the attention of Russia and that they responded similarly when the same planes arrived in Norway. He considers the voyage to be a message to Icelanders and the West: "We see what you are doing and we respond."
Katarzyna Zysk agrees and says that Russia is well-aware that exercises close to neighbours' shores attract attention and are assessed in certain ways. "As a form of risk, as a form of at least uncertainty about Russia's intentions. So, they are well aware of that." She believes is it no accident that Russia acts in this way. They know that such behaviour would be closely followed and interpreted in a certain way.
Since Western powers became aware of developments in the Arctic, especially the growing interest of both Russia and China, the struggle for control of the region has intensified. Part of that effort is increased surveillance by NATO forces in the North Atlantic - surveillance carried out in large extent from Iceland. Since 2015, the presence of US Army P8 submarine patrol aircraft has been constant. Technically, the planes do not have a permanent base in Keflavík. But in practice Keflavík is the de-facto home base because there are seldom or never fewer than three P8s, and up to eight, at Keflavík at a time. When one of them leaves, another arrives.
Following the withdrawal of US troops from the Keflavík base in 2006, the base became somewhat of a ghost town, with dilapidated structures and decaying foundations. Most Icelanders would probably be surprised to see how much has changed in recent months. Rusty hangars have been given a new lease of life. Two large aprons built by the United States Air Force are ready, and the Navy is engaged in major construction nearby. Icelandic authorities are building accommodation facilities for soldiers coming from abroad, as Iceland is the host country and has certain obligations. The investment in Keflavík, in infrastructure and equipment, amounts to about twenty billion krónur in recent years. The majority of that investment comes from the United States, a part from NATO, and a fairly insignificant sum from Iceland.
Over the past six months, NATO freight traffic has also increased. Since mid-summer, large freighters are a daily sight in Keflavík, most of them arriving from military bases in the UK.
Guðlaugur Þor Þórðarson points out that little had been done for a long time. "But in my time as foreign minister, a lot has been achieved. Over twenty billion krónur has been invested [in Keflavík]. But it's not just buildings but also software and other things that are much more expensive than people might think. Most of this has been in the Keflavík area," he notes.
The Keflavík military base is being reactivated, says Michael Paul, and he believes that P8 submarine patrol aircraft will be there for the long haul, because it is especially Russia's submarine traffic in the North Atlantic that NATO is worried about. The traffic is through the so-called GIUK gap, the area between Greenland, Iceland and the UK, as there is no other way for Russia to enter the North Atlantic. But it is important, both for Iceland and for all other NATO countries, to maintain defences there.
In Paul's opinion, it makes little sense to install bombers like the B2 in Iceland, but he points out that Norwegian authorities have allowed the arrival or presence of such bombers in Norway.
In the autumn of 2019, the US Navy temporarily established an expeditionary Maritime Operations Center (MOC) in Keflavík. The centre was under the auspices of the US 2nd Fleet, which had recently been revived in response to changing conditions in the North Atlantic. From Keflavík, the MOC executed command and control of a cruiser and three destroyers in the North Atlantic for a while.
This September, four destroyers from the 2nd fleet were permanently attached as part of a new special task force, called Greyhound, and will henceforth have the main task of following Russian submarines in the North Atlantic and responding to any unexpected threats.
When Kveikur asked Icelandic authorities about this, the answer was that information about Greyhound had not been formally conveyed to Iceland, no more than other changes in US forces that did not concern operations in Icelandic territory. Greyhound would have no direct effect on Iceland.
Kveikur's sources say the presence of the Russian ships around Iceland should be seen in connection with these developments, the B2 bombers, P8 submarine hunters and increased traffic around Keflavík. The Russians' presence was in fact a political message to Icelanders - only a month before the country's parliamentary election - rather than a traditional military action. Russia is well aware that the topic of defence can be a complicated one for a country whose coalition government is led by a prime minister whose Left Green Party still has as part of its platform that military exercises, as well as the arrival of military ships and aircraft, should not be allowed in Iceland.
The arrival of the Russian ships could have shone a spotlight on this situation and activities in Keflavík, making them into an election issue. Russia views the waters around Iceland as its area of influence, just as NATO does. The message to Iceland is: Increased military build-up in Iceland means increased Russian attention.
Katarzyna Zysk describes the situation in Norway in a similar way - although the Russian military is much more frequently close to shore there, even with armed exercises. She says the government in Oslo is closely monitoring, maintaining its position but making sure that the allies are well informed about the situation. "And at the same time the Norwegian reaction has been to carefully strengthen military presence in the region. Also allied military presence in the region, US military presence, as a form of strengthening deterrence in order to somehow balance the expanding Russian military activity and presence in the region," says Zysk.
She also points to the increased scope of NATO military exercises, such as Trident Juncture 2018. That exercise also extended to Iceland. The public debate about defence and security might be close-to-non-existent in Iceland, but the trend is the same as in Norway: military build-up.
The Russian convoy remained close to Icelandic shores for nine days, until 29th August. Then, the three ships, followed by the Canadian frigate Fredericton, headed for the Barents Sea. A two-month voyage around the Arctic turned out to be a three-week trip to the shores of Iceland.
This is the first time that Russian warships have stayed within the Icelandic Exclusive Economic Zone in this way. Russian bombers, so-called Bears or Tupolev 95, have, however, repeatedly flown into Icelandic airspace; even circling Iceland.
NATO jets usually take off to shadow the Russians when that happens, from Iceland whenever possible, otherwise from Norway or the UK. But armed warships off the coast of the country is a new development, an escalation of tensions that have been building in recent years. As the Arctic ice melts, it is clear that the struggle for interests will intensify - but at the same time, US interest and attention are increasingly shifting towards the Pacific and Asia, as a recent defence agreement with Australia and the UK shows. But what is Iceland's strategic position if defence in the North Atlantic is less of a priority than China?
Michael Paul believes that the Nordic countries, Germany, andin fact all of Europe, needs to prepare for change - and to take greater responsibility. Until now, the Nordic countries' defence policy has been based on the immediate response and arrival of US forces, he says. But that is no longer certain, although it is in his opinion unlikely that the United States would disappear altogether. It would simply be to their advantage to defend the North Atlantic, to defend themselves.
By 2029, the United States plans to have six news icebreakers ready. And the Russian news agency TASS recently reported, according to its sources within the Russian armed forced, that a new Arctic fleet would be established, which would be in addition to the Northern fleet.
There is no indication that tensions around Iceland are easing. On the contrary, it seems militarisation is the order of the day.