AMARI, ESTONIA - At a new NATO-standard airbase in Estonia, four F-16s train over the Baltic Sea, sometimes coming within 100 meters of Russian war jets that tail them.
The new $100 million base flies flags of the countries of NATO pilots who have trained here recently: Poland, Estonia, Britain, Denmark and the United States.
The training helps ease concerns here in the Baltics, unnerved by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and its arming of separatists in eastern Ukraine. The three Baltic nations – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – were ruled by Moscow for nearly half a century, only winning their independence in 1991.
At an early celebration of America’s Independence Day, in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, U.S. Ambassador Jeff Levine talked to a crowd about America’s, and NATO’s, commitment to defend this small country:
“The United States, both as a friend and as an ally in NATO, is committed to Estonia’s security,” Levine said. “In the last four months, we have had boots on the ground, planes in the air and ships at sea.”
Mingling in the crowd of almost 1,000 Estonians were uniformed soldiers from an American airborne regiment and sailors from the USS Oscar Austin, an American destroyer anchored near Tallinn.
Brian Diebold, commander of the Navy ship, described the NATO naval exercises recently completed off Estonia. “It can be characterized as 28 ships, 14 nations -- and one team finished,” he said.
Almost half of NATO’s 28 member countries sent ships, he said: “Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, there was Lithuania, Latvia, France, Demark, Germany, the UK, the U.S. I can’t even remember all 14 of them.”
In honor of traditional July 4 festivities, an Estonian choir sang the American anthem.
Estonia’s gratitude to the U.S. and NATO has grown in direct proportion to its fears about Moscow, most recently following Russia’s March annexation of Crimea and its ongoing support for pro-Russian secessionists in eastern Ukraine.
At Estonia’s Defense Ministry, Mikk Marran, the permanent secretary, said the three Baltic nations have watched in alarm as Russia has rearmed in recent years. He said much of Russia’s military modernization has been concentrated near the Baltics.
“The conflict in Ukraine showed us pretty clearly that Russia is willing, and Russia is able to move the forces pretty quickly,” Marran said.
The three Baltic nations are members of NATO, and all are banking on that mutual defense treaty to protect themselves against Russian aggression. Marran praised the NATO training maneuvers here as sending a clear message of deterrence to Moscow.
“We have to send constant messages to the potential adversary that they should not even think about doing something similar to Crimea or the eastern part of Ukraine, in Estonia,” he said.
For now, Estonia’s defense strategy centers on holding off Russia long enough for the big firepower to arrive from NATO. In coming weeks, the Estonians are placing a large order of American anti-tank weapons.