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Russia tests missiles in the Baltic Sea, a day after Baltic leaders met with Trump

Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis and Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid held a news conference with President Trump on Tuesday. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

BRUSSELS — Russia on Wednesday started a live-fire military exercise in the Baltic Sea, just outside of NATO territorial waters, in a move a top Latvian defense official called a “show of force” just a day after Baltic leaders met with President Trump.

The three-day missile test forced a partial shutdown of Latvian civilian airspace and was the first time Russia has tested live munitions in Latvia’s exclusive economic zone, a stretch of international waters just outside of Latvia’s territory in the Baltic Sea. Latvian defense officials said they were carefully monitoring the situation.

“What concerns us is that it’s the first time when they’ve actually exercised so close to our borders,” said Janis Garisons, the state secretary of the Latvian Defense Ministry. “We regard it as a show of force, nothing else. There have not been any kinds of provocative actions, but there are still two days to come.”

The presidents of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia met Trump at the White House on Tuesday, a visit that came as the countries celebrated their 100th anniversaries of independence. During World War II, they were occupied by the Soviet Union and did not regain sovereignty until 1991, and they have long felt themselves on the front line of conflict with Russia.

Sweden and Poland also received notifications from the Russian Defense Ministry about live-fire exercises in the Baltic Sea, and Sweden has rerouted flights during the operation. 

The notifications were sent Thursday, days after the countries joined dozens of others and NATO headquarters in expelling Russian diplomats to protest the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, England. Britain, Germany, France and the United States have blamed the Kremlin for the nerve-agent attack.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” a top Swedish aviation official, Jörgen Andersson, told Swedish radio last week after the exercise was announced.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that at least eight ships were involved in the maneuvers, which were intended to practice “anti-ship and antiaircraft defense.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu dismissed Western concerns Wednesday, telling a security conference that NATO allies “intimidate themselves with a nonexistent Russian threat and then systematically increase their military potential.”

In September, Russia conducted large-scale military exercises in its western military district, close to the Baltics, Poland and Scandinavia, a weeks-long flurry of activity that also set off alarm bells in Western capitals and drew criticism for a lack of transparency.

The current exercise “does not reduce tension in the region but instead worsens the security situation,” Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis wrote on Twitter last week.

Garisons said he was cautious about making a direct connection between the Russian exercises and the White House meeting.

“You can link it to many things,” he said, including the Salisbury attack. NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, is scheduled to visit Latvia on Thursday. Scaparrotti is also the commander of U.S. military forces in Europe.

Past Russian naval activity in the Baltic Sea has also appeared intended to deliver a political message, as in the spring of 2015, when a spate of exercises disrupted the laying of a high-voltage undersea power line connecting Lithuania and Sweden. The link was intended to make Lithuania less dependent on Russia and Belarus for electricity. It was eventually completed.

Baltic leaders have expressed concern about Trump’s reluctance to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin for a laundry-list of violations of international norms, including most recently, the Skripal poisoning. But they have embraced Trump’s robust military spending increases and say that U.S. policy toward Russia appears as hawkish as in previous presidential administrations.

Trump said Tuesday that he appreciated that the Baltic countries were all on track to meet, by the end of 2018, the NATO goal of spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, something he has slammed other nations for failing to achieve.

“I especially want to commend the Baltic nations on meeting their defense spending obligations this year for NATO, unlike some of the other countries, frankly, that haven’t met their obligations, but they will,” he said ahead of the summit.

The White House meeting — a chance for the tiny Baltic nations that they typically receive only once during each U.S. presidency — drew top leaders of each country, meaning that they are unusually short-staffed at home during the Russian exercises. Alongside the president of each country, the foreign and defense ministers along with their top advisers went to Washington. 

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