Russian live missile tests force Latvia to close airspace over Baltic sea: ‘It’s hard to comprehend’

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Russia has carried out missile tests in the Baltic Sea, causing Nato member Latvia to shut down part of its commercial airspace. 

The Russian defence ministry said its Baltic Fleet, based in the exclave of Kaliningrad, would conduct routine training in the area starting on Wednesday.

It said the drills would involve firing live ammunition to practise hitting air and sea targets.

They are taking place between Sweden, Poland and Latvia – close to the southern Swedish city of Karlskrona, which hosts a key naval base. 

Three corvettes and a frigate are taking part, as well as ship-borne helicopters which are conducting training flights and practising hunting enemy submarines.

“It is a demonstration of force,” Latvia’s prime minister, Maris Kucinskis, told Reuters. “It is hard to comprehend that it can happen so close to [our] country.”

The tests are being carried out in Latvia’s exclusive economic zone, an area of the sea just beyond its territorial waters where Latvia has special economic rights, as well as further west in the Baltic Sea.

Riga has closed some of its airspace for the three days of tests, while Sweden issued a warning to civilian sea traffic and said there could be delays and disruption to civilian air traffic.

The tests began a day after the US president, Donald Trump, met the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia at the White House. 

President Trump made the case the US had been “very tough on Russia,” pointing to its support for increased defence spending by Nato countries as a check on Moscow’s aggression. 

“Nobody has been tougher on Russia, but getting along with Russia would be a good thing, not a bad thing. And just about everybody agrees to that except very stupid people,” he said in a Cabinet Room meeting with the leaders. “We’ve been very tough on Russia, frankly.” 

When President Trump was asked by a reporter if he considered the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to be a friend or foe, he replied: “We’ll find out. I’ll let you know.”

Latvia’s president, Mr Kucinskis, noted the decision to carry out tests so close to Latvian waters came after the West expelled the largest number of Russian spies since the Cold War, following the military-grade nerve agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. 

Latvian officials said Russian drills have never taken place so close to its territory. However, it noted Russia is not breaking any international regulations and has the right to carry them out.

“Drills lasting for three days in the region where there is very intensive aviation traffic, and given everything else that is happening in relations between the West and Russia, I think that it is a rather provocative action,” Latvia’s ambassador to Russia, Maris Riekstins, told Latvian television.

Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said the alliance would follow the tests closely, while noting every nation has the right to carry out military exercises. 

“We are staying vigilant and we are also increasing the readiness of our forces, especially in the Baltic region,” he told reporters after meeting the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, in Ottawa. 

The missile tests and military drills follow Russia’s massive war games last September, which stretched from the Baltics to the Black Sea.

The exercises unnerved the West because of their scale, scope and what Nato said was a lack of transparency.

Additional reporting by agencies