NATO intercept Russian planes near Estonian airspace

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The NATO logo with flags of member States on it

Spanish and Finnish fighter jets were sent to intercept three Russian planes flying near Estonian air space on Tuesday, the NATO military alliance said in a statement.

The Russian airplanes were identified as two MiG-31 jets and one Antonov AN-26 transport aircraft, NATO said.

“Two Spanish F-18 jets assigned to NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission scrambled from Estonia’s Amari Air Base,” NATO said.

“Finnish jets also scrambled to intercept the aircraft.”

Intercepts of Russian aircraft by NATO have increased in recent years amid heightened tensions between the West and Moscow over Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis.

Russia is preparing send as many as 100,000 troops to the eastern edge of NATO territory at the end of the summer, one of the biggest steps yet in the military buildup undertaken by President Vladimir Putin and an exercise in intimidation that recalls the most ominous days of the Cold War.

The troops are conducting military exercises known as Zapad (the Russian word for west) in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

The drills will feature a reconstituted armoured force named for a storied Soviet military unit, the First Guards Tank Army.

Its establishment represents the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that so much offensive power has been concentrated in a single command.

The military exercise, planned for many months, is not a reaction to sweeping new economic sanctions on Russia that the US Congress passed last week, but the move is part of a larger effort by President Putin to shore up Russia’s military prowess. It comes against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive Russia.

Beyond Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election in support of the Trump campaign, which has seized attention in the United States, its military has in recent years deployed forces to Syria, seized Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, rattled the Baltic States with snap exercises and buzzed NATO planes and ships.

Punishing sanctions by the United States and European allies that have isolated Russia further have done nothing to stop Putin’s saber-rattling, as illustrated by the long-scheduled Zapad exercise.

Even more worrying, top US military officers say, is that the exercises could be used as a pretext to increase Russia’s military presence in Belarus, a central European nation that borders three critical NATO allies: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

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