One of the biggest-ever North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) exercises in the Baltics is now under way.
Named “Hedgehog“, the drills involve 10 countries, including Finland and Sweden, expected to formally apply to join the alliance within days.
The exercises in Estonia, which would last until June 3, were arranged before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin has said Russia has no issue with Finland or Sweden, but a military expansion near its border would demand a reaction.
Sweden on Monday confirmed its intention to apply for NATO membership, joining Finland, which declared its position last week.
NATO has said the aim of the exercises were to “enhance the readiness and interoperability” of its forces.
Some 15,000 troops were involved in the exercise in Estonia, making it one of the largest military drills held in the country since 1991.
The exercise was taking place 64km (40 miles) from Russia’s nearest military base. It was intended to simulate an attack from Russia on Estonia.
Russia saw NATO as a security threat and had warned of “consequences” for the prospective new members.
Sweden stayed neutral in World War Two and for more than two centuries had avoided joining military alliances.
Finland, meanwhile, shared a 1,300-km (810-mile) border with Russia. Until now, it had stayed out of NATO to avoid antagonising its eastern neighbour.
The exercises were planned before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. But amid the growing security threat from Russia, they were being closely watched.
Finland and Sweden confirmed they would apply for NATO membership on Thursday and Sunday respectively. They were expected to hand in their formal bids to join the alliance on Wednesday.
NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, suggested that there could be a fast-track process to the two countries’ application, with interim security arrangements put in place to deal with any possible Russian retaliation.
Despite its rather cosy codename, NATO Exercise Hedgehog (“Siil” in Estonian) was taking place at a time of heightened tensions in the Baltics, said BBC security correspondent, Frank Gardner.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has convinced governments in the region that they needed to seriously beef up their defences if they were to deter President Putin from further military aggression, our correspondent added. -BBC