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US F-35 fighter jets deploy to Estonia in signal to Russia

The US Air Force is deploying F-35 jets to Estonia, putting the service’s newest fighter jets even closer to Russia’s doorstep.

F-35A stealth Joint Strike Fighters flew from a base in the United Kingdom to Estonia, which has an almost 200-mile-long border with Russia.

The advanced aircraft flew from Hill Air Force Base in Utah to Royal Air Force’s Lakenheath airfield earlier this month.

Officials noted at the time that the Air Force also planned several “out and back” flights to other NATO nations that would help familiarize pilots with the region.

The fighter jets arrived at the Ämari Air Base on Tuesday and will remain in the Baltic country for “several weeks.”

The move was seen by Estonian defense officials as a gesture underscoring the US commitment to its NATO partners.

While in Estonia, the F-35s will conduct training flights with aircraft from the US and allied militaries.

The Air Force will also deploy F-35 jets to Romania, another NATO ally.

Both Estonia and Romania have been unnerved by Russia’s reunification with the strategic Black Sea peninsula of Crimea following a referendum in March 2014.

Fearful of a repeat of that scenario elsewhere, Western countries have moved to step up their military presence in Eastern Europe to deter what they call the Russian “aggression.”

French military tanks and vehicles, part of a NATO mission, are unloaded at Tapa military base in Estonia, March 29, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

The F-35’s deployment to Europe is happening under the pretext of the so-called European Reassurance Initiative, the Pentagon’s catchphrase for a series of military exercises with NATO allies meant to send a signal to Russia.

The deployment has also been viewed as a marketing tactic by the US to show off the aircraft’s capabilities to its European allies.

“The introduction of the premier fifth-generation fighter to the European area of responsibility brings with it state-of-the-art sensors, interoperability, and a broad array of advanced air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions that would help maintain the fundamental sovereignty rights of all nations,” the Air Force said in a statement this month.

The service has previously sent other fighter jets, namely F-22, F-16, F-15 and A-10, to Europe as part of the European Reassurance Initiative. Thousands of US troops have also been deployed in the continent on the same mission.

Moscow is wary of NATO’s military build-up near its borders. In response, Russia has beefed up its southwestern military capacity, deploying nuclear-capable missiles to its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad bordering Poland and Lithuania.

The European Union and the US have imposed several rounds of sanctions against Russia.

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