Nato’s chief said the alliance must “keep strong” after its jets intercepted a large number of Russian aircraft flying close to European airspace over two days this week, in an “unusual” series of incidents that brought Russian bombers as far afield as Portugal.

The aircraft – at least 19 in all – offered reminders of Russian air power at a time when relations between the West and Russia are at their lowest point since the cold war. Russian military aircraft have significantly increased their activity around Europe since the conflict in Ukraine began this year, with Nato scrambling to intercept aircraft more than 100 times in 2014. But a Nato official said the latest incidents were this year’s most provocative.

Over the North, Black and Baltic seas and the Atlantic Ocean, Russian bombers, fighter jets and tanker aircraft were detected flying in international airspace, Nato said. There were no incursions in national airspace, a violation of sovereignty that would have greatly amplified the seriousness of the four incidents, three of which took place on Wednesday.

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