Germany assures Baltic states of military support


German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was welcomed and greeted by German and British Eurofighters on his visit to Estonia. At the Ämari Air Base and during political talks in Tallinn, he reassured the Baltic states of Germany’s solidarity, protection and support.


Taking off with a deafening noise from the runway at the Ämari Air Base, two fighter jets climbed into the blue sky over Estonia. First, a Eurofighter from the German Air Force, followed shortly afterwards by a British Eurofighter. Their joint mission: to protect and secure the airspace above the fellow NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. For the first time, these German-British squadrons carried out patrols together in March and April, executing the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission – with one Eurofighter jet from each air force assigned to the collective task. The allied fighter aircraft can be tasked at any moment to react within minutes to threats or anomalies in the airspace above the Baltic states. The skills of the joint air force were put to the test just a few days after taking over the Air Policing operation together, as German and British pilots had to perform a routine interception of a Russian air-to-air refuelling aircraft flying close to Estonian, and thus NATO, airspace without communicating to the air traffic control. The incident happened just one day ahead of the visit to Ämari by the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on 15 March, who also got a taste of airspace surveillance upon his arrival to Estonia. His Airbus A319 was stopped in the sky by a GermanBritish alert squadron that clung to the right wing of the airplane and escorted it to its landing. However, there was no cause for concern as the entire operation was a practice run. The joint squadron has to conduct missions regularly, so they simply practised with Steinmeier’s presidential aircraft and pretended it had entered the airspace unauthorized. But the real-life scenario would not be much different: safeguarding the Baltic airspace is ensured by Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) operations, which scrambles NATO fighter jets when an unknown aircraft approaches or flies close to Baltic airspace without using a transponder signal, not communicating with air traffic control, or not having filed a flight plan. Most often, the interceptors are launched to visually identify Russian military aircraft that frequently make the run between the Russian mainland and the Kaliningrad exclave, which is wedged between Lithuania and Poland. Nowhere else do the armed forces of NATO and Russia come so close as in the international airspace over the Baltic Sea, which is less than five kilometres wide at its narrowest point.

No increase in airspace violations

NATO has been protecting the Baltic skies since 2004, when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the military alliance. Germany has long been involved in air surveillance missions and has deployed its planes in Ämari on nine occasions. Since the start of the Russian attack on Ukraine, the air policing become even more important, even though the war has not yet aggravated the situation in the airspace over the Baltic states. Most of the intercepts conducted by NATO over the Baltic Sea are routine. “We have no increase in airspace border violations. We also have no significant increase of the number of alarm starts that we do”, the Inspector General of Germany’s armed forces, General Eberhard Zorn, said in Ämari. According to the military, German Eurofighters have flown more than 30 alert take-offs and identified Russian military aircraft over the Baltic Sea during their nine month long air policing mission. Zorn, who was Chief of the Bundeswehr at the time, accompanied Steinmeier on his visit, during which the German head of state learned about his country’s air force mission and deployment. He was briefed on the situation and given an explanation of how the German-British cooperation to monitor and protect the airspace over the Baltic Sea works both in the sky and on the ground at the Ämari base, located about 40 kilometres south-west of the capital Tallinn.

Steinmeier also observed a training alarm start before talking to German and British soldiers and having lunch with them in the troop canteen. “I am also here to express my heartfelt thanks to the soldiers for the mission they are performing”, the German President emphasized. Together with the United States and Britain, Germany is currently the largest troop contributor on NATO’s eastern flank, which spans from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. For the air policing mission, five Eurofighters and around 150 German soldiers had been deployed from August 2022 to April 2023 at the military base in Ämari. For the last two months, they were joined by a detachment of the Royal Air force to fly jointly with mixed aircraft, ground staff and pilots in a close cooperation concept called Plug-and-Fight that the German Air Force initiated with other Eurofighter nations. Combining and integrating fighter assets allows NATO allies to reduce logistical efforts and their detachment footprint, and also helps to further develop interoperability.

“We stand by the side of the Baltic states”

Before visiting Estonia, Steinmeier had previously been in Latvia and Lithuania as well as almost all other eastern NATO partners in 2022. The veteran politician, who took office as German President in 2017, is aware of their concerns and sensitivities. “Here in Estonia, here in the Baltics, people live just a few kilometres from the Russian border and we have to understand that there is a great fear that the Baltic states could also fall victim to a Russian attack”, he told German journalists in a hangar in Ämari. “Our presence here is all the more important – the military presence as well as the political presence.” Standing demonstratively in front of a Eurofighter, Steinmeier reassured the Baltic states of German military support and solidarity. “The message we are sending from here is very clear: NATO is ready to defend every square inch of its alliance territory”, he said. “We stand by the side of the Baltic states and we assure them that we will protect them. Germany can be relied on in this matter”. In Tallinn, he later added after meetings with Estonian President Alar Karis and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, “Germany stands by its responsibility in NATO and in Europe. Our allies can count on that”.

This clear commitment was highly appreciated by his Estonian hosts. “Germany’s importance in guaranteeing security in Europe cannot be overstated. It plays a central role in NATO’s collective defence, both on the battlefield and in making the necessary decisions”, Karis said, adding that there would be no functioning NATO or a strong EU defence policy without Germany. Similarly, Kallas hailed the German contribution in ensuring security in the Baltics. “The German presence in our region has become stronger and we value it highly”, she stated after a breakfast meeting with Steinmeier, adding that in a changing security environment everyone must do more and faster than before to ensure their own and the collective security. “German leadership is crucial”, Kallas underlined.