Finland's fighter jets on alert as Russia violates airspace

HELSINKI, Finland — Finland's government said its fighter jets were ready to intercept foreign aircraft after Russian planes repeatedly violated the northernmost euro member's airspace.

A Russian Antonov AN 72 transport plane crossed the Finnish border Thursday at about 12:08 p.m. local time near Porvoo on the Gulf of Finland, the government in Helsinki said. Russian state aircraft are also suspected of two other airspace violations on Finland's south coast since Aug. 23.

"It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that they don't respect borders," Charly Salonius-Pasternak, senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said by phone. "At a minimum, the Russian air force is acting carelessly and that they do so is more and more serious, taking into account the general international and European security situation."

The Finnish government views the incursions as "extremely unfortunate incidents" that must be "taken very seriously," Defense Minister Carl Haglund told reporters in Helsinki Thursday. "Three airspace violations within a week is a lot and unfortunately they don't really have a good explanation. What we know is they are done somewhat on purpose. We don't know what that purpose is."

Finland, which has the European Union's longest border with Russia, has condemned its eastern neighbor's incursion into Ukraine, calling the annexation of Crimea and subsequent displays of military aggression illegal. The comments underscore how deeply Europe's relationship with President Vladimir Putin has soured, even for nations with close economic ties like Finland.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called an emergency security meeting Thursday to stop what he called a "de facto" Russian incursion after pro-Russian insurgents gained ground in intensified fighting, taking several towns outside their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistoe this week denounced the violation of Ukraine's territorial sovereignty. Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, speaking at the same event, said Russia has "done wrong."

Finland and Sweden will sign an agreement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization making it easier for the bloc to put its troops on their soil, the two governments said this week. Closer ties have been under way since last year as part of a collaboration first envisioned in 2002. The countries will be free to decide the extent of their NATO cooperation on a case- by-case basis.

"Finland's aim to reach this deal isn't going to be a surprise to Russia," Salonius-Pasternak said. "The timing might have been somewhat unexpected. On the grand scale, it's hard to see this" airspace violation "as a reaction" to the pact, "though it cannot be excluded."

Sweden's government, with the backing of the opposition Social Democrats, approved the purchase of 60 Gripen fighter jets from Saab, broadcaster SVT said Friday. While the order has been planned since at least 2012, Defense Minister Karin Enstroem said that "developments in the world and Russia's actions in Ukraine" underlined the importance of buying next generation aircraft, SVT said.

Russian aircraft also violated Finnish airspace twice in May. Finland, which fought two wars against the Soviet Union during World War II, has published all airspace violations since 2005, after Russia breached the border 11 times in a short period of time without owning up. About 30 airspace violations have happened since then, and about half have been by Russian aircraft, according to Max Arhippainen, spokesman for the Defense Ministry.

"It's clear this cannot continue," Haglund said. "The main thing would be to get a diplomatic message across to Russia that they need to pay attention."

According to Salonius-Pasternak at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, "the flights serve a purpose. They're not accidental when they happen so often and continuously."

Finland has worked with NATO since 1994 as a member of the Partnership for Peace program and its military equipment is NATO-compliant. It shied away from the full membership its Baltic neighbors sought amid voter reluctance to join.

Yet even NATO membership doesn't shield countries from Russian airspace violations. Latvia's Defense Forces sent out this tweet late Thursday: "NATO Baltic Air Policing QRA MiG-29 jets on 28 AUG 2nd time scrambled to intercept RU Armed Forces An-26 over the Baltic Sea."

Estonia has suffered five incursions into its airspace this year, compared with a total of seven over the previous eight years, Arvo Joesalu, a spokesman for Estonia's defense headquarters, said by e-mail on Aug. 27.

Finland hosts a two-week multinational military exercise, Northern Coasts 2014, starting Friday. The exercise, which includes NATO and EU member states, has been held since 2007.

"I presume this won't be the last" airspace violation "because we have the Nordic Coasts training," Salonius- Pasternak said. "The military threat against Finland hasn't increased. However, the regional security situation has weakened, it's less predictable and that also involves Finland."

With assistance from Ott Ummelas in Tallinn and Aaron Eglitis in Riga.

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