Russian naval exercises off Ireland’s coast ‘not welcome,’ says Foreign Minister

Dublin CNN  — 

Planned Russian naval exercises within Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are “not welcome” or “wanted right now,” Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister has said, as tensions between Russia and the West continue to simmer over fears that Moscow is planning an invasion of Ukraine.

Russian naval exercises are due to take place in early February, approximately 240 kilometers (149 miles) off Ireland’s southwest coast, Simon Coveney said in a statement late Sunday. The area is in Ireland’s EEZ but not its territorial waters.

Under international law, states are entitled to carry out naval exercises in another state’s EEZ, Coveney said. He said the Irish Aviation Authority had been informed of the exercise via standard procedures.

“In light of the current political and security environment in Europe, the Department of Foreign Affairs has raised a number of concerns with the Russian authorities in respect of these exercises,” Coveney added.

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia are at their highest in years, with a Russian troop buildup near the border spurring fears Moscow could soon launch an invasion. The Kremlin has denied it is planning to attack, arguing NATO support for Ukraine constitutes a growing threat on Russia’s western flank.

NATO allies are putting forces on standby and sending additional ships and fighter jets to eastern Europe, the organization said Monday. Meanwhile, the US State Department announced Sunday evening it would reduce staff levels at the US Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, beginning with the departure of nonessential staff and family members.

Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, left, speaks with Belgium's Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes during a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, on January 24.

On his way into the Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels on Monday, Coveney told reporters that he will brief his EU counterparts on Russia’s plans to conduct the naval exercises.

Although the area is part of Ireland’s EEZ, it is in international waters, meaning Ireland doesn’t “have a power to prevent this happening,” the Foreign Minister remarked.

“I’ve made it clear to the Russian ambassador in Ireland that it’s not welcome. This isn’t the time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what’s happening with and in Ukraine at the moment,” Coveney emphasized.

“The fact that they’re choosing to do it on the western borders, if you like, off the EU, off the Irish coast, is something that, in our view is simply not welcome and not wanted right now, particularly in the coming weeks,” he said.

EU foreign ministers want to send a clear message to Russia that if it decides to invade Ukraine it will be hit by the “most comprehensive” package of sanctions and restrictions ever prepared by the EU, Coveney said.

US officials have said a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen at any point in the next month or two.

The UK foreign office said in a statement on Saturday that it has information the Russian government is planning to “install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine.”

James Frater reported from London, Niamh Kennedy reported from Dublin.