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Russia tests missiles in the Baltic Sea a day after Baltic leaders meet Trump

The five-day military exercise, just outside Nato territorial waters, was called ‘a show of force’ by a Latvian defence official, and caused the shutdown of Latvian civilian airspace

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2018, 2:40am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2018, 10:35pm

Russia on Wednesday started a live-fire military exercise in the Baltic Sea, just outside Nato territorial waters, in a move a top Latvian defence official called a “show of force”.

The barrage came just a day after Latvia’s president and other Baltic leaders met at the White House with US President Donald Trump.

The three-day missile test forced a partial shutdown of Latvian civilian airspace and was the first time Russia has tested live munitions in Latvia’s exclusive economic zone, a stretch of international waters just outside Latvia’s territory in the Baltic Sea. 

Latvian defence officials said they were carefully monitoring the situation.

“What concerns us is that it’s the first time when they’ve actually exercised so close to our borders,” said Janis Garisons, the state secretary of the Latvian Defence Ministry. 

“We regard it as a show of force, nothing else. There have not been any kinds of provocative actions, but there are still two days to come.”

Trump rebukes Putin over his ‘invincible’ nukes

The presidents of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all met Trump at the White House on Tuesday, a long-planned visit that came as the countries celebrated their 100th anniversaries of independence. 

During the second world war, the Baltics were occupied by the Soviet Union and did not regain sovereignty until 1991, and they have long felt themselves on the front line of conflict with Russia.

Sweden and Poland also received notifications from the Russian Defence Ministry about live-fire exercises in the Baltic Sea, and Sweden shut down a portion of its airspace during the three-day Russian operation. The notifications were sent last week.

Baltic leaders have expressed concern about Trump’s reluctance to criticise Russian President Vladimir Putin for a variety of violations of international norms, including most recently, the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. 

But they have embraced Trump’s robust military spending increases and say that US policy toward Russia appears as hawkish as in previous presidential administrations.

Garisons said he was cautious about making a direct link between the Russian exercises and the White House meeting.

“You can link it to many things,” he said, including the expulsions last week of Russian diplomats from most European countries in response to the Salisbury nerve agent poisoning. 

Nato’s top military commander, US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, is expected to visit Latvia on Thursday. Scaparrotti is also the commander of US military forces in Europe.

Trump said on Tuesday that he appreciated that the Baltic countries were all on track to meet the Nato goal of spending at least 2 per cent of their GDP on defence by the end of 2018, something he has slammed other nations for failing to achieve.

“I especially want to commend the Baltic nations on meeting their defence spending obligations this year for Nato, unlike some of the other countries, frankly, that haven’t met their obligations, but they will,” he said before the meeting.

The White House meeting – a chance the tiny Baltic nations typically receive only once during each US presidency – drew top leaders of each country, meaning that they are unusually short-staffed at home during the Russian exercises. 

Along with the president of each country, the foreign and defence ministers and their top advisers also went to Washington.