Lithuania has intercepted the largest group of Russian military jets near allied airspace this year, in the early hours of this morning, as Russia continues its snap military exercises in the Baltic, Arctic and elsewhere.
The increasing number of unannounced Russian military drills near its Baltic neighbours, combined with Russia sending jets into airspace close to its European neighbours has prompted concern from defence officials on the continent before. Lithuania and Estonia’s defence ministries have previously said such tactics could allow Russia to redeploy forces on their borders.
On Monday Russia began one such drill, which includes testing the combat readiness of 38,000 servicemen from various branches of the armed forces by simulating war scenarios. The exercise is focused on the mobilisation of the entire Northern Fleet near the Arctic, military units were also deployed near the Black Sea and the Baltic.
As these exercises continue a spokesman for Lithuania’s Ministry of Defence says that 11 Russian military aircraft were spotted by NATO’s Baltic Air Police Mission flying in international airspace near Lithuania earlier today without the pre-filed plans for their route. The Ministry also reported the jets had their on board transponders switched off and they did not maintain radio communication.
The group of Russian jets, included long-range Su-27 and Su-34 fighters caught flying near the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and were intercepted and escorted by allied Typhoon jets from the NATO base at the Lithuanian city of Šiauliai today.
The jets were intercepted before entering allied airspace, however the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence has highlighted that such maneuvers are still dangerous as they “pose a threat to civil aviation”.
The jets were all intercepted in one scramble, making it the largest such interception by the Baltic Air Police Mission so far in 2015. This follows the huge spike in interceptions of Russian planes for the NATO mission, which culminated in December when a record number occurred - 21 scrambles were performed by the alliance over the Baltic, intercepting almost 80 aircraft in the space of six days.
A spokesperson for the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence says that such scrambles have become a “daily occurrence” for the Baltic allies.
According to Baltic security expert Martin Hurt, some of the intercepted Russian jets were likely part of the Russian exercises in the region, however their unannounced flights near allied airspace have strategic purpose.
“While doing this, Russian authorities obviously track the behaviour of NATO and other nations’ air forces,” says Hurt, who has previously worked for the Swedish and Estonian defence ministries.
“This is, I am afraid to say, likely to continue and in the long run, NATO should consider whether the current level of military presence in the Baltic states is sufficient,” Hurt warns.
“Military exercises will undoubtedly raise the combat readiness of the Russian Armed Forces and at one point, something that first may seem to be an ordinary exercise may as well develop into a real military operation similarly to what happened in Crimea in February 2014.”
Hurt suggests NATO enforce Baltic defences with more “significant” measures, arguing that doing so would have “a sobering effect” on Russian decision making.
“Today’s Baltic Air Policing mission is what the name suggests – a peacetime police arrangement. It does not constitute a military form of deterrence, even though it certainly has a solid political element of deterrence,” he adds.