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(L/R): Head of Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service Onno Eichelsheim, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld and British ambassador Peter Wilson attend a press conference of the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) at The Hague, The Netherlands, on October 4, 2018. - Dutch intelligence thwarted a Russian cyber attack targeting the global chemical weapons watchdog in April and expelled four Russian agents, the government said. The Russians set up a car full of electronic equipment in the car park of a hotel next to the Organisation for the Prohibition for Chemical Weapons in The Hague in a bid to hack its computer system, it said. (Photo by Bart Maat / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo credit should read BART MAAT/AFP/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

This is the first time the US has taken over the policing mission since January 2014

Russia is gearing up for a major military exercise which is expected to involve tens of thousands of troops

(CNN) —  

The US Air Force took over the NATO mission responsible for ensuring the security of Baltic airspace Wednesday, a move that comes amid increased Russian air activity in the region and just weeks before Moscow plans to launch a massive military exercise that has put the region on edge.

Seven US F-15C Eagle jet fighters and 140 airmen have arrived in NATO-member Lithuania where they formally took over the NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission from Poland. The US aircraft from the 48th Fighter Wing, based at RAF Lakenheath in the UK, will patrol the Baltic airspace alongside Belgian Air Force F-16s that are deployed to Estonia.

This is the first time the US has taken over the policing mission, which rotates between different NATO members, since January 2014 and it comes as Russia is gearing up for a major military exercise, Zapad 2017, which is expected to involve tens of thousands of troops participating in war games in the region.

“Today we are particularly grateful to Poland and the US who have sent their troops to the NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission. The US and Poland are the closest allies of Lithuania and therefore their robust support and determination to enhance the security measures and safeguard our skies are extremely valued by every Lithuanian citizen. Our people know that all alliance is and will be here in all domains if need be,” Lithuania’s Vice Minister of National Defense Vytautas Umbrasas said at a ceremony commemorating the transfer of command.

The US aircraft will be patrolling airspace that has grown increasingly congested in recent months.

NATO officials have acknowledged an increase in the number of intercepts of Russian military aircraft.

“We have seen an increase in air activity in the Baltic region,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters last month following a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. He also referred to a Finish Initiative which recently convened a working group of representatives from Russia, NATO, Sweden and Finland to discuss the issues involving the congested Baltic airspace.