Ministry: Over 200 Russian international aviation violations in 2020

Estonia and NATO flags at Ämari air base.
Estonia and NATO flags at Ämari air base. Source: Valner Väino/Kaitsevägi

Military planes from the Russian Federation were involved in a total of 228 violations of international aviation norms close to, and sometimes in, Estonian airspace, in 2020, the defense ministry says. This has necessitated the scrambling of NATO jets based at Ämari a total of 48 times, the ministry says, or almost once a week on average.

Margus Matt, Undersecretary for Legal and Administrative Affairs at the Ministry of Defense, told ERR News Tuesday that: "The persistent disregard of established aviation norms and rules by Russian military aircraft we have witnessed is just one example of Russia's aggressive posture towards NATO, and their total disrespect for internationally established norms in aviation safety. This does not create any confidence that Russia even tries to behave in a responsible manner internationally."

Russian military aircraft – including fighter jets, transport aircraft and civilian airliners in military service – often either have their transponder switched off, or do not have a code compatible with international norms.

A flight transponder is an electronic device which produces a response if receiving a radio request, and is used in aviation as a way of identification in air traffic control.

They additionally seldom file a flight plan with international air traffic controllers, and often do not communicate with local air traffic control while in-flight.

Aviation violations a civilian hazard

This can constitute a flight hazard for civil aviation in international airspace close to Estonia, as well as in Estonian airspace itself, most notably above the island of Vaindloo in the Gulf of Finland, and in that of neighboring countries.

NATO recently highlighted the issue, with spokesperson Oana Lungescu saying: "In recent years, we have seen an increased level of Russian military air activity close to the Alliance's borders."

"We are always vigilant. NATO fighter jets are on duty around the clock, ready to scramble in case of suspicious or unannounced flights near the airspace of our Allies. Air policing is an important way in which NATO provides security for our members," Lungescu continued.

NATO Baltic Air Policing duties fly out of Ämari, west of Tallinn, and Šiauliai, in Lithuania, on a rotational basis. The Ämari duty is currently held by Eurofighter Typhoons from the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), with the air forces of France, Poland, the Czech Republic, the U.K. and Spain among other recent participants

German Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon and personnel at Ämari earlier this year. Source: Valner Väino/Kaitsevägi

NATO jets scrambled nearly 50 times from Ämari

The Ministry of Defense gave the following flight incursion statistics for 2020, as of December 29:

  • 228 instances of Russian aircraft violating aviation norms and rules in the Baltic region (flying without transponders, failing to make contact with Tallinn Air Traffic Control, failing to present a flight plan - a distinction here is that the violations of aviation norms are not in and of themselves violations of Estonian airspace itself).
  • 48 scrambles by NATO Baltic Air Policing fighter jets from Ämari, to identify Russian aircraft.

NATO jets also fly out of Šiauliai, Lithuania on a practically weekly basis, since planes from the Russian Federation often fly very close to Lithuanian air space while traveling to and from the Kaliningrad exclave, which borders the southernmost Baltic State and also Poland.

NATO jets scrambled over 400 times across Europe in 2020

Europe-wide, NATO air forces scrambled more than 400 times in 2020 to intercept unknown aircraft approaching Alliance airspace, NATO reports, the vast majority of these (350) in response to Russian military or military-related flights – some flights have been known to have been transporting high ranking Russian armed forces officers – which represents a small increase on the figure from last year.

There are around 40 NATO air surveillance radars and reporting hubs, and about 60 NATO jets, on duty 24/7 to serve as a quick-response force for such purposes, and also to respond to other incidents including distress calls.

Wide range of Russian aircraft recorded

Estonia has also seen visits, overflights and exercises involving U.S. military planes in recent months, including those from B-52 bombers and Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor VTOL/STOL aircraft.

The rationale for NATO Air Policing is to provide air force cover for those member states, including the Baltic States, Albania, Bulgaria, Iceland, Montenegro, Romania, Slovenia, which lack substantial air forces equipped with fast jets in particular.

NATO has two air operations centers in Germany and Spain, covering northern and southern Europe respectively.

A plethora of Russian planes of various ages, designs and purposes have been reported in recent years over the Baltic, with  Antonov An-26 transporters, Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 fighter jets, and Ilyushin IL-20 airliners being particularly frequent players.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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