TALLINN (Reuters) - Russia has returned to Cold War ways by stepping up incursions into European Union and NATO members’ airspace and territorial waters, and the West needs to present a united front to deter President Vladimir Putin, Estonia’s defense minister said on Friday.
“Russia has gone back to the Cold War posture and they are behaving more aggressively and more provocatively, not only towards Estonia or the other Baltic countries, but against all NATO allies and all European countries,” Defence Minister Sven Mikser told Reuters.
While Russia’s probing of Baltic states’ air and sea defenses is nothing new, NATO fighter jets stationed around the region had been scrambled 86 times by mid-October this year, nearly twice the number in the whole of 2013, according to Lithuania’s defense ministry.
Estonia has reported six breaches of its airspace by Russian aircraft this year, up from two in all of 2013. Latvia says it has sighted more than 40 Russian military vessels near its waters.
The three Baltic states were part of the Soviet Union until shortly before the collapse of the Communist superpower in 1991. NATO members since 2004, they have been alarmed by Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and its backing for pro-Moscow separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s military accused Russia on Friday of sending a column of 32 tanks and truckloads of troops into the country’s east to support the rebels fighting government forces. Russia denies arming the separatists and blames the crisis on Ukraine and the West.
Mikser said, however, he did not see outright Western military conflict with Russia as likely.
“I think Western nations, quite naturally, are not interested in seeing any sort of any escalation,” he said.
“But when dealing with any sort of regime like that of Mr Putin’s, weakness is more provocative than strength. It is very important that the West is ... strong and united. That is the best way to deter Russia.”
Additional reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Simon Johnson and Mark Trevelyan