A group of American fishermen learned this summer exactly how it feels to be in the jaws of the Russian military.
Tim Thomas, captain of the fishing vessel Northern Jaeger, had an up-close and personal encounter with the Russian military on Aug. 26, when he was ordered by a Russian plane to get out of the way while fishing in the Bering Sea, according to The New York Times.
Thomas was not inclined to agree, because he was on the U.S. side of the exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles from land.
Then a Russian navy ship told him to leave.
“At this point, I’m going, ‘What’s going on here? Are we getting invaded?’” Thomas said.
The reality was that Thomas, along with others, was in the path of Russia’s “Ocean Shield” military exercise, one piece of Russia’s muscle-flexing taking place as nations compete in areas that were once covered by ice.
Russia, noted The Times, has sent a nuclear-powered icebreaker straight to the North Pole and used an Arctic archipelago for war games.
“This adversary — this competitor, Russia — has advanced on all fronts,” said Maj. Gen. Scott Clancy, a Canadian officer affiliated with NORAD. “We find ourselves in another era of great-power competition. Russia obviously wants to be a competitor in that.”
But to David Anderson, commanding the fishing ship Blue North during its August encounter, all of these Russian commands left him fearful for his ship and his crew. He called the Coast Guard for help.
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“It was frightening, to say the least,” Anderson said. “The Coast Guard’s response was: Just do what they say.”
Thomas estimated that having to leave the region cost his company more than $1 million.
Rear Adm. Matthew T. Bell Jr., the commander of the Coast Guard district that includes the region, said Russian military forces are not unusual.
However, he said, “the surprise was how aggressive they got on our side of the maritime boundary line.”
Russia has made it clear that it seeks to become a major player in the economic development of the Arctic region.
Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska said the U.S. needs to stand up to Russia, and said the fishermen should not have had to cede the seas to the Russians.
“I think they were testing us — flexing their military muscle,” he said.
The Coast Guard later said it knew of the Russian exercise, but did not get word to the fisherman.
A Coast Guard memo to fishermen in the region said caution should always prevail.
It said that “safety of life at sea should always be paramount in managing the safe navigation of any vessel on the high seas, and is the responsibility of the mariner with firsthand situational awareness.”
Lt. Gen. David Krumm, commander of the Alaskan Command and the 11th Air Force, said this is a critical time.
“We’re at a pivotal point in the timeline of the Arctic,” he said. “What we have to do now is be prepared to fight here and defend here.”
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