Russian President Vladimir Putin’s jet flew into Nato airspace without authorisation on Monday as he travelled to meet American counterpart Donald Trump in Helsinki, Estonian authorities have confirmed.
Estonia sits at the northeastern tip of the military alliance’s mutual security zone and remains fragile against an increasingly assertive Russia. Moscow has frequently sent its planes into Estonian airspace to send a message to the small Baltic state and the alliance that it remains a part of, but one that Russia views as a threat to its territory.
Authorities released a statement on Tuesday that located the violation as taking place in the region of Vaindloo Island.
“Airplanes stayed in the airspace of Estonia for less than a minute. Airplane transponders were turned on but no flight plan was provided. The aircraft did not have a radio contact with Estonian air traffic services,” the Estonian military statement read.
It said that Russian airplanes had breached Estonian airspace six times this year.
Nato did not respond to a request for comment at the time of writing.
Estonian military spokesman Roland Murof told The New York Times that the event was “characteristic of Russia’s behaviour”.
“Most of these air border violations happen for only a minute, or two minutes maximum,” Mr Murof added.
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The incident took place ahead of a summit between Mr Putin and Mr Trump to discuss deteriorating US-Russian relations.
The US president’s performance was widely panned in Washington after he appeared to side with the Russian version of events about Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.
On Tuesday, he backtracked under bipartisan pressure, saying that he misspoke when he said he had no reason to believe that Russia intervened in the vote. US intelligence agencies have concluded that Moscow made clear attempts to manipulate the outcome of the election. So Mr Trump’s comments appeared to undermine their conclusions and side with Moscow.
"The sentence should have been, 'I don't see any reason why I wouldn't, or why it wouldn't be Russia"' instead of "why it would," the president said.
But the American leader had sat through two television interviews and tweeted several times before deciding to correct himself.
He then appeared to question the viability of Nato’s collective defence pledge, citing Montenegro as an example.
Russia was concerned when Montenegro joined the alliance in 2017 and Moscow has had poor relations with the country ever since, amid allegations of a Russian-backed coup attempt there.
Mr Trump seemed to side with Russia in a television interview on Tuesday night, asking why the US should defend allies if tiny Montenegro’s “very aggressive people” started another global war.
Montenegro "may get aggressive and congratulations, you're in World War III," Mr Trump said.
On Wednesday, Mr Trump continued to laud the summit with Mr Putin as a success, despite the uproar around his press conference.
"While the Nato meeting in Brussels was an acknowledged triumph, with billions of dollars more being put up by member countries at a faster pace, the meeting with Russia may prove to be, in the long run, an even greater success,” he tweeted.
"So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki," the US leader added.
"Some people HATE the fact that I got along well with President Putin of Russia. They would rather go to war than see this," he said. "It's called Trump Derangement Syndrome!"