Monday, November 7, 2011

Russian Planes Spark NATO Scramble in Baltics

VILNIUS - NATO jets were scrambled Nov. 7 as four Russian air force planes flew near the territory of the Baltic states, Lithuania's defense ministry said, adding that the unusual number was a cause for concern.
Defense ministry spokeswoman Ugne Naujokaityte said that four Danish F-16fighters, which currently police the skies of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, took to the air twice to escort the Russian planes.
Two AN26 transport aircraft and a TU134 bomber flew in succession from Russia's Baltic territory of Kaliningrad to Russia itself, and an IL20 intelligence-gathering plane flew in the opposite direction.
While their path over neutral waters did not ultimately encroach on the Baltic states' airspace, the flurry of flights was unusual in an area that normally sees only a few Russian aircraft transit every few weeks.
"The intensity of these Russian planes' flights raises concern. It proves once again the importance and necessity of the NATO air police mission in Baltic states," Naujokaityte said.
The Baltic states broke away from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 after five decades of communist rule and joined NATO in 2004. They have had rocky ties with Moscow since independence and are jittery about Russian military moves in the region.
With a total population of 6.5 million and a professional military of 20,500, they lack sufficient aircraft to police their own skies.
As a result, other members of 28-nation NATO take turns patrolling the trio's airspace on rotations lasting several months, out of a base in Lithuania. Denmark took over from France in September. Russian aircraft bound for Kaliningrad - sandwiched between the Baltic Sea, Lithuania and fellow ex-communist NATO member Poland - have at times strayed into the Baltic states' skies without permission.
The line between navigational error and Russian "buzzing" of the Baltics can be hazy, experts say. While the planes involved in Monday's incident did not actually cross into the Baltic states' airspace, it comes amid growing disquiet about a Russian build-up in the region.
The Baltic states have stressed repeatedly that improving ties with their resurgent former master is by far their preferred option. But their concerns increased after Russia's 2008 war with ex-Soviet Georgia, as well as Moscow's affirmation in its military doctrine that NATO's expansion is a threat, and by military exercises with scenarios including cutting off the Baltic states from the rest of NATO.
Worries have been stoked by the bolstering of a brigade of marines in Kaliningrad, and reported Russian deployment there of a new anti-aircraft missile system sweeping the Baltic states and Poland.

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