US and British naval ships enter the Barents Sea, tracked by Russia’s Northern Fleet

It's the first time U.S. Navy surface ships have operated in the Barents Sea since the 1980s, the Navy said.

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The British frigate HMS Kent takes part in a replenishment-at-sea while on exercise with the U.S. Navy north of the the Arctic Circle on May 3, 2020. (Dan Rosenbaum / HMS Kent / U.S. Sixth Fleet)

MOSCOW — Russia’s Northern Fleet is tracking a group of U.S. and British naval vessels that entered the Barents Sea on Monday morning, the Russian Defense Ministry was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

The U.S. Navy said earlier on Monday that four U.S. Navy ships and a Royal Navy vessel had entered the Barents Sea to conduct maritime security operations in what it called the challenging environmental conditions above the Arctic Circle.

It said U.S. Navy surface ships had not operated in the Barents since the mid-1980s, and that Russia’s defense ministry had been notified on May 1 “in an effort to avoid misperceptions, reduce risk, and prevent inadvertent escalation.”

Russia’s Northern Fleet, which includes both nuclear-powered ships and submarines, is based near Murmansk in the waters of the Kola Bay, a fjord which feeds into the Barents Sea.

The U.S.-British decision to conduct operations in the Barents Sea comes as Russia is pushing ahead with a military build-up in the Arctic, an area it regards as strategically vital due to its hydrocarbon reserves, increasingly open Northern Sea shipping route, and geopolitical and defense importance.

Reporting by Andrew Osborn.