Send fighter jets to the Baltics to defend their airspace, Estonia tells U.S.

Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet listens during an interview in Vilnius, Lithuania February 19, 2022. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

VILNIUS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Estonia has asked the United States to send fighter jets to the Baltic states to defend their skies, amid worries that Russia could be poised for an attack on Ukraine that would lead to an confrontation with the Baltic region, the country's defence minister said on Saturday.

"There is a possibility that, if Ukraine, falls down, the Baltic states would be next," Estonian minister Kalle Laanet told Reuters in an interview after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

The three Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, were once ruled from Moscow but are now part of NATO and the European Union. They do not operate their own fighter aircraft.

NATO allies have kept several jets in the region on a rotating air policing mission since 2004.

"They are patrolling airspace, but have no right to attack or protect," Laanet said, referring to the mission.

"But we have to talk about air defence, that means that, in our area, more fighters," he added. "We need to fill our lack of capabilities."

Austin vowed Washington would stand with its Baltic allies but declined to be drawn on whether he would answer their calls for additional troops.

Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius Editing by Frances Kerry

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