ABOARD HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH (AP) – As tensions with Russia ease, thousands of NATO troops, several warships and dozens of aircraft are participating in military exercises that stretch across the Atlantic, through Europe and into the Black Sea region.

The war games, called Steadfast Defender 21, are designed to simulate the 30-nation military organization’s response to an attack on one of its members. It will test NATO’s ability to send troops from America and keep supply lines open.

For the past several years, the United States and its allies have deployed troops and equipment in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to reassure neighboring members of Russia that their partners will ride to the rescue if attacked.

Russia’s decision last month to send thousands of troops to the border area with Ukraine sparked concern over the military alliance, which launched one of its largest defense spending initiatives of all time after Russian troops annexed the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine in 2014.

NATO leaders insist that the military exercises, which involve around 9,000 soldiers from 20 nations, are not specifically aimed at Russia, but rather focus on the Black Sea region, where Russia is accused of blocking free shipping.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says the exercises are an important message to any potential opponent: “NATO is ready.”

“NATO is there to defend all of our allies and this exercise sends a message about our ability to move large numbers of troops and equipment across the Atlantic, across Europe and also to project sea power,” Stoltenberg told The Associated Press on board a British aircraft carrier off the coast of Portugal.

The ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is the pride of the British Navy. It is making its maiden voyage and carrying 18 F-35 jets: the first deployment of so many 5th generation aircraft on board an aircraft carrier.

The ship’s presence, which is part of a 6-7 month mission that will take it south past India, through Southeast Asia to the Philippines Sea, aims in part to undermine Britain’s tarnished image as a global power since it left the European Union restore.

Adorned with high-tech US jets and flanked by warships from other NATO countries, the carrier strike force is also an important symbol of unity as the world’s largest security organization tries to recover from four turbulent years under the Trump administration.

Stoltenberg will chair a NATO summit in Brussels on June 14th. Current US President Joe Biden and his colleagues aim to usher in a new era of transatlantic cooperation as troops leave their longest mission in Afghanistan as tensions with Russia mount and increasingly China, Berg.

The War Games will take place in two new NATO command centers, one in Norfolk, Virginia; the other in Ulm, Germany. Part of the focus of the first phase was protecting the submarine cables that carry masses of trade and communications data between the US and Europe.

NATO says Russia is mapping the cable routing and may have darker intentions.

“We have all lulled ourselves into thinking that the Atlantic is a harmless region with nothing bad going on and we could just use it as a free highway,” said Norfolk’s commander, US Navy Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis.

“There are nations that map these cables. You can do another bad thing. We have to be aware of this and respond to it, ”he told reporters.

NATO says its policy towards Russia rests on two pillars: strong military deterrence and dialogue. But high-level meetings between the two historic enemies are rare, and European officials are insisting that President Vladimir Putin becomes increasingly authoritarian and distanced himself from the West.

“We are ready to sit down with Russia because we think talks are important, especially in difficult times,” said Stoltenberg. “The biggest challenge now is that Russia has not responded positively to our invitation or our initiative to meet the NATO-Russia Council,” their main advisory forum.

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