COVID-19 cancels joint Russian-Norwegian cross-border rescue exercise

The annual coast guard exercise in the Barents Sea is one of the few where Russian and NATO forces exercise together.

The Norwegian Coast Guard vessel KV Sortland takes part in Exercise Barents in 2019. (Thomas Nilsen / The Independent Barents Observer)

Norwegian and Russian military and civilian rescuers have announced that Exercise Barents 2020 is cancelled due to COVID-19 pandemic.

The unique annual cross-border search-and-rescue exercise normally takes place in the maritime border areas of Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea. It is one of very few arenas where NATO personnel are working side-by-side with assets from Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet.

“We have decided not to conduct Exercise Barents 2020, supposed to take place on May 27th. This in full understanding with the partners in Russia,” Bente Jonassen at the Norwegian Joint Rescue Centres told the Barents Observer.

The two countries considered postponing the exercise until autumn, but such option was ultimately seen as unrealistic, she said.

“Norway is now planning and responsible for Exercise Barents 2021,” Jonassen says.

Last year, the Northern Fleet participated with its tug Altai as well as a Ka-27 helicopter and a Il-38 maritime surveillance aircraft. FSB’s border guard’s ship Zapolariye also assisted.

The exercise employed a realistic scenario with a vessel sinking and people are reported missing at sea. In the start, the Russian assets works on the east side of the maritime border line, while the Norwegians are on the west side. Then, if permissions are granted, Russian ships can sail across to Norwegian waters and vice-versa.

After the search-and-rescue part is ended, the exercise turns into an oil-spill scenario with testing of various equipment to prevent oil from spreading in the harsh Arctic climate.

Norway and Russia share responsibility for the exercise bi-annually and since the 2020 drill is cancelled, Norway will take the lead next year.