Estonia's airspace was not breached by Russia in 2023 – the first time in almost a decade. However, experts do not believe it suggests a reduction in Russia's capabilities due to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Russian military aircraft have repeatedly flown in Estonia's airspace without permission more than 40 times since 2014 when NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission deployed to the country.
Incursions peaked in 2016 at ten and have been five or below since 2019.
While no violations were recorded in Estonian airspace last year, NATO's air policing missions were still scrambled over 150 times in response to Russian aircraft flying close to Baltic airspace, data published weekly by Lithuania's Ministry of Defense shows.
This is around 100 fewer than the year before when a-scrambles hit a 10-year high in the wake of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The alliances' fighter aircraft are often launched to visually identify Russian Air Force aircraft, also known as an interception.
It is common for Russian jet crews to fly without the planes' transponders turned on, do not file pre-flight plans, and do not establish two-way radio communication with air traffic control, NATO says.
Estonian Air Force: Russian jets busy in Ukraine
The downward trend is due to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Estonian Air Force told ERR News on Monday.
"The drop in numbers of Russian military flights (including incidents) in the Baltic region is the result of the war in Ukraine, as the majority of Russian combat aviation is engaged in the Ukrainian [war] theater," Commander of Estonian Air Force HQ Col. Janek Lehiste said in a comment.
Asked if the war had changed the Russian Air Forces' capabilities, he said they are "largely the same" as before the war but the "focus and disposition has changed."
Tony Lawrence, head of the Defense Policy and Strategy Program at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) in Tallinn, said he does not think Russia's capabilities have been reduced.
"The Russian air force has not been committed very heavily in the war. It has lost maybe 15 percent of its combat power (although it is possible that the remaining fleet is flying less in order to preserve airframe life)," he said in a comment to ERR News.
"While there may not have been any airspace violations in 2023, there have been plenty of incidents close to Estonian airspace that have required a NATO air policing response."
The researcher also highlighted the British Royal Air Force intercepted 50 planes during its stint in Estonia last year – more than on its previous rotations – including a joint interception with Germany during the handover period.
Latvia also reported a Russian aircraft incursion in 2023.
Violations are a "hybrid warfare tactic"
Explaining why Russia breaches Estonia's airspace, Lehiste said: "It is hard to find a purely military rational reason behind such a behavior. Most likely it is a matter of posturing and messaging."
Lawrence said Russia achieves several things with its tactics.
"It's a statement about how Russia views Estonia's sovereignty. It tests the response of the NATO air policing mission and causes them to launch aircraft to intercept the intruder. And it's a hybrid warfare tactic – part of spreading uncertainty and fear in neighboring states," he said.
Historically, Estonia's airspace has been breached over the small Vaindloo Island in the Gulf of Finland, although two helicopter incursions occurred at the Koidula border crossing point in 2022.
"Vaindloo is on the frequently used route between St Petersburg and Kaliningrad and is close to where Russian-controlled airspace meets Estonian-controlled airspace. Russian military aircraft on this route often 'cut the corner' and spend a minute or so in Estonian airspace," Lawrence said.
NATO's air policing mission has been based at Ämari Air Base in Estonia since 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, and Šiauliai, Lithuania since 2004.
Allied jets patrol the skies on a four-month rotating basis and Poland is currently in charge of duties in Estonia.
Editor: Marcus Turovski