NATO on April 1 began a two-day exercise, briging more than 100 US Air Force personnel, along with F-15 fighter jets and a Germany-based Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) craft, to former Soviet air bases in Lithuania. Denmark is also sending six F16 fighter jets to the Baltic as part of an expanded NATO air policing mission, with regular patrols to begin May 1. The incidence of Russian jets flying close enough to Baltic airspace this year to prompt NATO jets being scrambled has increased to about once a week, according to Lithuania's defense ministry. NATO jets were scrambled about 40 times in both 2012 and 2013; in 2004, the year the Baltic republics joined NATO, it only happened once.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 3 any increase in NATO's permanent presence in Eastern Europe would violate the 1997 treaty on NATO-Russian co-operation. But Lithuania's Defense Minister Juozas Olekas says the situation is worse than a new Cold War. "It feels hot and very near," he told reporters, adding that NATO must to do more to stop "this aggression." NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen last week welcomed Estonia's new Prime Minister Taavi Roivas to the allaince headquarters in Brussels and reassured him of its full commitment to collective defense. (SMH, April 4; RTT, April 3; Lithuania Tribune, March 31)
The stationing of NATO troops in Latvia is being advocated by some politicians there. But in comments paradoxically trumpeted by the Russian media, Aivars Lembergs, mayor of the Latvian port city of Ventspils, said: "If NATO troops move in, it practically means a foreign occupation. It's the same thing that happened in 1940, when the Soviet army came to Latvia at the invitation of [then-prime minister] Karlis Ulmanis." (RT, April 4)