WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy must dedicate forces to pushing back against Russian activity throughout the European theater in the coming weeks, two lawmakers said, even as the world’s focus is on Ukraine’s land borders with Russia and Belarus.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Joe Courtney agreed that a strong show of force from the Navy — particularly in the undersea domain, where Russia has focused its modernization efforts — could help deter Russia from its overall effort to assert itself in the region or to stop a small conflict from growing into something larger.

The two Connecticut Democrats spoke Jan. 24 at a virtual event hosted by submarine builder General Dynamics Electric Boat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “will test us in every single place that he can. He’s doing it right now in Ukraine: he wants to restore the hegemony over countries that formerly were part of the Soviet Union; bring back Ukraine into Mother Russia; conduct a hybrid war of military actions, cyber-attack and misinformation. And part of his overall strategy is to bolster undersea warfare and thereby push the United States, try to divide allies, and create instability,” Blumenthal said in response to a question regarding how naval forces could help get Putin to back down in Ukraine.

“Undersea warfare — because we’re talking about the Mediterranean, about the Black Sea as potential areas of tension and conflict — is very much in play even though it isn’t directly involved in the confrontation in the Eastern Ukraine area or Crimea or in the northern borders of Ukraine, which represent perhaps the greatest immediate threat in Belarus, where Putin is amassing forces right now,” he added.

The senator said he agreed with President Joe Biden’s statement that U.S. troops should not be sent into Ukraine to fight, but he said strengthening and bolstering NATO capabilities in the region would be important, as well as finding other ways to show strength “around the world in other areas where we go head-to-head with the Russians.”

He added that the U.S. should also focus on economic sanctions against Russia, including export controls on semiconductors and other technologies Russia needs to keep its economy going; disconnecting Russia from the international financial system; supplying more arms to Ukraine so the country can defend itself; and getting NATO allies, especially Germany, united in their efforts to respond to Russia.

Though the world’s focus has been on Ukraine’s border with Russia to the east and Belarus to the north, Russia announced last week that it would hold a series of large naval drills in all its geographically dispersed fleets, upping the ante in its standoff against the West.

“The drills are intended to practice navy and air force action to protect Russian national interests in the world’s oceans and to counter military threats to the Russian Federation,” the defense ministry said, adding that they will start this month and run through February in the Mediterranean, North Atlantic and Pacific.

Just the day before that announcement, the U.S. Navy announced its guided-missile submarine Georgia was in Cyprus for a port call — an unusual move, announcing the location of this large submarine loaded to the gills with conventional missiles, that in recent history has only been done to send a message to Russia or North Korea.

Courtney, in following up to the same question at the event, said the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group exercising with NATO forces in the Mediterranean represented “the most visible sign of presence that the Navy is exercising out there.” But, he said, the submarine fleet would have an important, if less visible, role in checking Russian aggression.

Saying that Russia’s string of exercises would “flood the zone” with submarines in the North Atlantic, where Russia’s submarine-heavy Northern Fleet operates, Courtney said: “There’s no question that our undersea fleet is going to be very busy at this very tense moment and is definitely going to play a big role in terms of making sure that whatever possible conflict may emerge, that it does not escalate into something more serious.”

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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