Lithuanian Nato airbase busied by increased Russian airspace incursions

Nato airplanes fly over Lithuania. Credit: Reuters

There was a time when Siauliai base was home to 26,000 Soviet troops, right on the frontier of the Iron Curtain.

Now, it's run by just 400 Lithuanian personnel, who host Nato fighter squadrons (currently Italian and Polish, but the RAF have done a stint here recently too).

Everyone is kept on their toes by regular incursions and incidents involving Russian planes.

Last year there were 144 incidents, a dramatic increase on the year before (and more than the total number of incidents between 2005 and 2010 combined).

In short, Russia’s probing of the NATO defences is increasingly rapidly. Most incidents involve Russian planes flying across the Baltic without “squawking” their identity or filing a flight plan. It triggers a scramble of jets from one of the NATO bases in the region to visually identify the aircraft.

Eight times last year Russian planes actually entered the airspace of Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia.

The Lithuanian pilots have been on high alert over the past few months. Credit: ITV News

Ironically, sometimes this means Polish MIG 29 jets are sent up to investigate; Russian designed planes from a former Soviet base checking on the antics of the Russian air force in an airspace it used to dominate.

It must be acutely galling for the Kremlin, which regards the Baltic States as its back-yard particularly as Russia still has a small enclave on the Baltic coast at Kaliningrad.

The airbase in Lithuanian is a former Soviet Union airbase. Credit: ITV News

The nightmare scenario for the west would be a sudden crisis involving the significant Russian minority in a city like Klaipeda, giving Russia the pre-text for annexing part of the country.

That’s all quite far-fetched at the moment - but then a Russian backed rebellion in Ukraine seemed unthinkable a year ago. Russia’s territorial ambitions might not be solely confined to the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.