This week will mark the end of NATO’s current Baltic Air Policing rotation which stood began in September, 2017. USAFE F-15C Eagles of the 493d Fighter Squadron spent the rotation operating from Šiauliai air base in Lithuania, and Belgian F-16A MLU Falcons flew from Amari air base in Estonia. Later this week Danish F-16AMs will replace the US fighters, and Italian Air Force Typhoons will assume BAP duties from the Belgians. The September-January time period was a busy time in the air over the Baltics. US fighters were scrambled 30 times to intercept Russian aircraft flying near the airspace of the Baltic nations. Most of the activity took place in September around the time of Zapad ’17. Overall, the numbers are similar to those of recent BAP rotations, but still significantly higher than what they were in the days before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and involvement in the Ukraine conflict.
The Baltic States are not the only area NATO conducts air policing missions. Iceland is another. The USAF ended the practice of rotating fighter squadrons to Keflavik in 2006. Shortly thereafter, Russian aircraft began to make incursions into Icelandic airspace. As a result, NATO stood up the Icelandic Air Policing mission in 2008 and has been rotating fighter detachments from member nations ever since.
The air policing rotations safeguard the sovereignty of air space for member nations that do not possess their own air arms, as well as provide valuable experience for pilots and ground personnel deployed. In a time of crisis, the numbers of NATO fighters operating from the Baltics and Iceland would increase. Therefore, it is heartening to know that there is a good amount of aircrews and support personnel who are familiar with operating from these locations.
The next Baltic Air Policing rotation will run from this coming week until May, 2018.
Less than two days after the US government penalized a pair of Russian companies for violations of the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of breaking the treaty themselves, and further, of laying the groundwork for a formal withdrawal from the INF treaty. Speaking on Friday, Putin lashed out at the US on a vast array of defense and geopolitical-related subjects. His points of contention give some insight to the issues that are irking the Russian leader beneath the surface, as well as providing an glimpse at where Cold War 2.0 might potentially take is in 2018.
Russia has still not come to terms with the US deployment of Aegis Ashore to Europe as part of a US-NATO missile shield being constructed to contend with the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles. From the earliest days of the program, Russia has opposed it, with Moscow claiming that the system’s true intent is to neutralize Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal.
Putin also took aim at President Trump’s national security strategy, labeling it as offensive and aggressive. The new US doctrine has labeled Russia as one of the nation’s strategic competitor, though experts and insiders agree the term means the US considers Russia to be a major threat to US interests, and policies. In spite of Putin and Trump making an effort to play nice in public, there’s suspicion and animosity growing on both sides. The US investigation into Russia’s possible tampering with the 2016 election is certainly not helping US-Russian relations. However, growing US economic sanctions are a larger bone in Putin’s throat for the moment.
The growing number of NATO troops present in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States was also brought up. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO encroachment has become a major domestic issue in Russia. Putin has used the average Russian citizen’s suspicions about NATO intentions as the rallying cry for a more aggressive foreign policy. The fact that the increase in NATO forces was made because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and continuing involvement in the War in Donbass is conveniently left out of the discussion.
After months of anxious speculation by Western politicians, general officers, and media outlets, the waiting is over. Zapad 17 is underway. Russia’s quadrennial strategic military exercise has attracted an overwhelming amount of scrutiny and attention. In light of past behavior on the part of Russia, some observers and analysts believe this exercise could be cover for a large scale Russian military action against NATO, or even against their erstwhile Belarussian allies. The 2008 Georgian invasion, and 2014 Crimean takeover were preceded by large scale military exercises. This fact is pointed to as cause to suspect Zapad 17 might be more than it appears. Other observers, politicians, and military officials suspect that Russia will use the exercise to permanently station large numbers of troops in Belarus, tilting the military balance in eastern and northern Europe in its favor.
Practically speaking, Zapad 17 is a preparation for war. After all, that is the point of a strategic exercise like this. In the absence of a hidden political agenda, the results of the exercise will be an indicator of the nation’s military capabilities and of vital importance to Moscow.
Zapad 17 will run from 14-20 September and involve units from every Russian service branch and military district. Moscow claims there are only 12,000 or so troops participating, however this number is deliberately false. In reality there are upwards of 100,000 personnel involved. Not admitting the true number is a deliberate attempt by Moscow to prevent Western observers from being allowed to monitor the exercise up close. Russia and NATO have previously agreed that exercises containing upwards of 30,000+ troops trigger an automatic attendance by observers from the other side. By cooking the numbers in this case, Russia is taking advantage of a loophole to keep as many prying eyes out of Belarus as possible.
As the week goes on and Zapad 17 unfolds, we’ll keep an eye on what is happening in and around Belarus and the Baltics.
With Zapad 17, the major Russian military exercise that has the Baltic states. and Eastern Europe on edge, set to begin in two weeks, US airpower is making an appearance in the region. NATO’s Baltic Air Police mission has just gone through a rotation of forces. Spanish F-18s and Polish F-16s, which have guarded the airspace of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia over the summer of ’17 have been replaced by a contingent of 4 Belgian F-16s and 4 USAF F-15C Eagles. The Belgian -16s will be based at Amari Air Base in Estonia while the US fighters bed down at Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania. The US will assume overall mission command for this BAP rotation, which will run from 30 August until late December, 2017 or early January, 2018. The US F-15s belong to the 493rd Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath. The squadron, like its parent unit the 48th Fighter Wing, is no stranger to deployments. Its aircraft have taken part in air policing rotations in the Baltic and Iceland in recent years.
With Zapad 17 coming closer, Russian air activity over the Baltic Sea has been increasing. The number of interceptions carried out by NATO over the summer was larger than it had been at the same time last year. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the start of fighting in Ukraine, the Russian air force has kept NATO Baltic Air Police pilots on their toes. As tension goes, so does the number of interceptions. If the numbers lately are any indication, relations between NATO and Russia are anything but harmonious at the moment.
Earlier this week Lithuania took a major step towards reducing its energy dependence on Russia. On Monday, the first LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) shipment arrived from the United States, marking the first time an ex-Soviet state has purchased and imported US natural gas. The shipment is viewed as a symbolic economic, and geopolitical act. Economically, the shipment is proof of Lithuania’s wish to cut its reliance on Russia for most of its energy needs. Importing US natural gas now, as well as Norwegian gas, puts Moscow on notice that Vilnius has alternative sources of energy available.
Geopolitically, this shipment is a strong indication of the US-Lithuanian relationship, and the significance both sides put on these relations as the security situation in the Baltics remains fluid. Helping to diminish Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has become an important policy objective for the United States. In the weeks since President Trump’s visit to Warsaw and the G20 summit in Hamburg energy assistance for Eastern Europe and the Baltics has taken on a higher priority. The Trump administration is finally grasping the importance of energy geopolitics in the current chess match with Russia.
For the moment, US LNG imports are not a threat to Russia’s firm grip on Lithuanian energy markets. This year Gazprom, the Russian energy conglomerate, has regained half of Lithuania’s natural gas market. Until the numbers of LNG shipments from the US and other energy sources rises considerably, Russia can focus its attention on other aspects of the increasingly complex, and tense geopolitical landscape in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.