Canadian fighter jets have begun patrolling the edge of Russian air space over the Baltic states as part of the NATO response to Moscow's efforts to destabilize and break up Ukraine.
Their job will be to police the skies and respond to intrusions by Russian fighters.
On Monday, Canadian CF-18 warplanes officially joined the military alliance's Baltic air policing patrols as NATO tries to bolster allies spooked by Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula last March. Canada committed to this deployment in July.
Canada is joining the NATO mission just days before alliance leaders including Prime Minister Stephen Harper gather in the U.K. to form a rapid-reaction force that will be able to respond quickly to new threats in Europe.
"In the wake of increased military aggression from Russia, Baltic Air policing is a demonstration of Allied solidarity and NATO's dedication to the security of its members. Canada is proud to support stability in the region by participating in this important mission," Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said.
This new assignment offers a more important role for Canada in the alliance's reaction to Vladimir Putin because air policing over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are not able to carry out their own air defence, is exactly the sort of weighty role NATO was designed to play – lending stability to the security situation in Europe. The CF-18 Hornets and more than 130 Canadian airmen and airwomen will operate out of an airbase in Siauliai, Lithuania and their mission will be distinctly different than the role Canadian jets have so far played in NATO's reassurance mission.
During the Baltic patrols, Canada's fighters will be armed, flying with loaded weapons. By comparison, Canadian fighters have been conducting unarmed NATO training exercises in Romania since May. Canada wound up Romanian training in August.
This new assignment, which will last until December, will bring Canadian fighters far closer to Russian territory than the NATO exercises in Romania. Lithuania is right beside the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, home to Moscow's Baltic Fleet and territory that is geographically separated from the rest of Russia; the Latvian-Russian border lies a few hundred kilometres to the northeast.
The Canadian presence in Lithuania is drawn from across this country, composed of personnel from 2 Wing Bagotville, 3 Wing Bagotville, 4 Wing Cold Lake, 8 Wing Trenton, 14 Wing Greenwood, 17 Wing Winnipeg and 22 Wing North Bay.
Other countries currently undertaking the Baltic air policing missions include Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal.
Four CF-18s will be participating in the patrols and another two Canadian jets will remain in Europe during the mission.