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The Baltic states have an urgent message for the UK and other NATO allies about the threat posed by Russia: “Wake up! It won’t stop in Ukraine.”

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are teaching more of their citizens how to fight and have even announced plans to build a defensive line, including bunkers, along hundreds of miles of border that separates their territories from their much larger neighbour.

Now, as concern grows within NATO about the potential for large-scale conflict returning to Europe, Sky News has travelled from northeast Estonia to southwest Lithuania to hear from soldiers, civilians and politicians who are preparing for a war they hope never to fight.

As former members of the Soviet Union, the Baltics have been sounding the alarm about the existential menace posed by Moscow ever since they joined the NATO alliance two decades ago.

Back then, though, no one really listened.

Instead, the UK and other allies were focused on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – countering insurgents and Islamist militants is a very different type of fight than a conventional war against a peer enemy like Russia.

Adding to a collective erosion in NATO’s defences, many European states, including Britain, significantly reduced stockpiles of Cold War-era weapons, such as tanks, artillery and ammunition, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, mistakenly believing they no longer needed to be ready to fight a war of survival at a moment’s notice.

Russia’s earlier invasion of Ukraine in 2014, with the capture of Crimea and seizure of swathes of the Donbas, started to change that calculation – but only very slowly.

People in Moscow wave flags bearing the face of Vladimir Putin as they show their support for Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Pic: Reuters
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People in Moscow show their support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Pic: Reuters

The concept of ‘deterrence by denial’

The alliance agreed to bolster its defences along the eastern flank of the Baltic states and Poland, with the deployment in 2017 of units of allied troops to all four countries – around 800 soldiers to each nation.

But this was done relatively cautiously – to minimise the risk of triggering an escalation of tensions directly between Moscow and the West as plenty of NATO states, including France and Germany, still had relatively close ties with Russia and did a lot of business.

As a result, the limited mission was not designed to prevent an invasion, but rather to provide a “tripwire” should Russian forces attack that would trigger a much larger allied response to then push them back out.

However, Vladimir Putin’s full-scale war in Ukraine on 24 February 2022 fundamentally altered that thinking too.

The allies realised once Russian troops had entered a country it would take a lot more effort to eject them, so they agreed to beef up their eastern defences even more and expanded them into four other nations.

The aim today is to prevent Russia from ever trying to invade – a concept known as “deterrence by denial”.

Throughout this evolution, the loudest voices inside NATO – urging allies to go further, faster and raising the alarm about Russia’s intentions – have been Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

They have also been amongst the strongest supporters of Ukraine and have warned that if Moscow prevails over Kyiv, it will likely try to test NATO’s defences next.

The site of a shopping centre in Kyiv that was bombed weeks after Russia's invasion in 2022. Pic: Reuters
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The site of a shopping centre in Kyiv that was bombed weeks after Russia’s invasion in 2022. Pic: Reuters

A potential soft spot for any Russian attack

The city of Narva lies on Estonia’s northeastern tip – right next door to Russia.

A vast, medieval castle, with large, stone walls and an Estonian flag fluttering high, stands at one edge of the city, next to a river that marks the border.

On the opposite bank is a second, similarly grand, historic castle, but it flies a Russian flag.

A crossing point, called the Friendship Bridge, connects Narva with the Russian city of Ivangorod.

It is only open to pedestrians after the Russian authorities closed their end to vehicle traffic for construction work at the start of February.

A historic castle in Estonia flies a Russian flag
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A historic castle in Estonia flies a Russian flag

Arnold Vaino, a police officer with the Estonian border guard, walked us on to the bridge, stopping just short of a red post that marks the halfway point and the start of Russia.

He recalled how he felt on the day the Kremlin launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine.

“Nobody feels comfortable when you hear that war has started,” he said. “But [we don’t feel] scared, for sure. But you open your eyes more wide.”

In an indication of the complexities of the geography and history of the region, the majority of residents in Narva speak Russian and some are sympathetic to Moscow.

It makes the city a potential soft spot for any Russian attack under the guise of coming to the aide of the Russian nationals who live in Narva.

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Any such move, though, would trigger an allied response under one of the founding principles of NATO – an attack on one is an attack on all.

There is no sense of fondness for the Russian government in most other parts of Estonia, including an island of about 9,000 people off the country’s western coast.

NATO commanders believe that Hiiumaa island could be another potential target for Moscow in any war with the West because of its strategic location in the Baltic Sea.

If Russian troops were to seize the territory, they would potentially have the ability to block access to the sea and isolate the Baltic states.

Such a prospect is one that the islanders are doing all they can to deter.

Estonian volunteers urge British civilians to learn to fight

We met a unit of citizen soldiers, faces painted army green, as they practised ambushes with rifles in the forest.

The volunteers – many of them middle-aged dads and the odd mum – are dubbed “the SAS” because they train on Saturdays and Sundays.

Estonia's weekend warriors are knowns as the 'SAS' because they train on Saturdays and Sundays
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Estonia’s weekend warriors are knowns as the ‘SAS’ because they train on Saturdays and Sundays

They said British civilians should also consider getting off their sofas and learning how to fight.

“It’s wrong to think that somebody else is coming to fight your war if you are not ready to defend yourself,” said Major Tanel Kapper, who commands the Estonian Defence League forces on the island.

Estonian military chiefs have doubled the size of their territorial defence force – the people who would support the much smaller professional army in a crisis – to 20,000 personnel after what Russia did in Ukraine two years ago.

That number comprises about 10,000 Defence League volunteers and the new addition of some 10,000 former conscript soldiers who are part of the military reserve.

‘We will kill as many of you as possible’

Polishing part of a rifle back at his base, a volunteer called Taavi, a father of two, said he decided to join the Defence League on Hiiumaa island along with about 14 friends last year in part as a response to the Ukraine war.

The construction worker said he did not want conflict, but was ready for combat if Russia invades.

“I have to take the weapon and try to protect my family, my home,” he said.

Major Kapper had a warning for Moscow: “It will be a bloody mess if you come here. We will definitely kill as many of you as possible.”

As for whether he had a message to other NATO countries like the UK that maybe are not doing as much to bolster their defences, the officer said: “To wake up. It won’t stop in Ukraine. If we don’t stop them, then they will come further and further.”

Latvian volunteers train at a base near Belarus
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Latvian volunteers train at a base near Belarus

Latvia bulking up its military due to Russia threat

There is a similar sense of urgency in next door Latvia, which reintroduced conscription last year after becoming the only Baltic state to halt mandatory military service in 2006.

The country plans to double the size of its armed forces – professionals and reserves – to 61,000 by 2032.

“War [in Ukraine] is already happening, so it’s not a question: is Russia going to be aggressive? It already is aggressive,” said Krisjanis Karins, the Latvian foreign minister.

“The point of the draft is to beef up capable and equipped and trained reservists,” he told Sky News in an interview on the sidelines of a major security conference in Munich in February.

“It’s not replacing the professional army, it’s augmenting the professional army.”

Asked whether it would make a difference if the UK instated conscription, Mr Karins, a former prime minister, said: “I think it would make a difference if any European country and of course the larger countries, it would make a bigger difference.”

Sky News was invited to visit a training base in southeast Latvia, close to its border with Belarus, a close Russian ally, where a mix of conscripts and other recruits were going through a three-week basic training course with the National Guard.

Latvian volunteers would offer support to the regular military during a time of war
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Latvian volunteers would offer support to the regular military during a time of war

‘Every man needs to at least try military life’

The National Guard is a branch of the armed forces that is made up of volunteers. At a time of war, they would offer support to the professional military.

“Bam! Bam! Bam!” the recruits shouted, rifles raised, mimicking the sound of gunshots, as they practised a response to an ambush on a muddy shooting range surrounded by forest.

Eduard, 18, was one of seven conscripts among the group of about 20 on the range. All seven were voluntary conscripts, rather than being ordered to serve.

“I think that every man in the world needs to at least try military life,” said Eduard.

A Latvian general explained how conscription is about much more than simply generating fresh boots on the ground – it is also about growing a sense of national service and a desire for each citizen to do their bit to help protect the country.

“Everyone has the right to serve – an obligation to serve – the nation,” said Major General Andis Dilans, the chief of the joint staff of the National Armed Forces, Latvia’s second most senior commander.

“This is really the cornerstone of democracy,” he said in an interview in the capital Riga.

“Therefore, we looked at this not just as a war-fighting force of the conscription, but looking at the connection between the public and the military in case of crisis, in case of war.”

Civilians have been practising since Russia's invasion
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A Lithuanian military training exercise in a forest

How Lithuania borders a potential flashpoint

The final leg of our journey took us to the southwestern edge of Lithuania, which borders a heavily fortified Russian exclave called Kaliningrad.

The Russian territory also shares a border with Poland, another NATO state.

It means the only way for vehicles, such as lorries loaded with goods, coaches carrying passengers, or ordinary cars to travel between the exclave and mainland Russia is by transiting through Lithuania and into Belarus.

The crossing was calm when we visited, with a long queue of lorries on the Russian side, waiting to be allowed into Lithuania.

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A border guard said the number of vehicles – about 300 per day in total, moving in and out – had roughly halved since 2022 because Western sanctions had limited the types of goods that are permitted to be transited through Lithuania.

Communication between the guards on either side of a long wire, fence, topped in sections with barbed wire and bristling with cameras, had also been all but severed.

In the past, officials, who might have been stationed at the crossing point for two or three decades, would often speak with their Russian counterparts but that has stopped completely.

A mobile phone line still exists that can be called in an emergency, but the guard said that the Russian side does not tend to pick up.

The Kaliningrad. border
Image:
The Kaliningrad border

Another potential flashpoint is a nearby strip of land, about 60 miles long, that connects Kaliningrad with Belarus and is bordered by Lithuania and Poland.

It is called the Suwalki Gap.

The concern among NATO commanders is that if Russia were to capture the corridor, it would provide another way to cut off access to the Baltic states.

Gitanas Nauseda, Lithuania’s president, summed up the response to the threat next door.

“All Baltic countries, Poland and other countries of the eastern flank of the NATO do a lot in order to utilise all the possibilities of [the] collective defence system, called NATO,” he said in an interview.

“But we also do a lot individually by increasing our defence spending, by closely cooperating with our neighbours and my country is especially active in this field.”

It is why a growing number of citizens in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are volunteering to serve.

But their ability to deter Russia may depend on whether the citizens of other allies follow suit.

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World must face Iran’s ‘evil empire’, Israeli president says

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World must face Iran's 'evil empire', Israeli president says

It is “about time” the world faced the “empire of evil in Tehran”, Israel’s president has told Sky News.

World leaders also need to “make it clear” to the Iranian regime that its behaviour is “unacceptable”, Isaac Herzog added.

He described Iran’s launch of more than 300 drones and missiles towards Israel on Saturday as “just another example of how they have operated for years and years”.

Follow live updates after Iran’s attack on Israel

Tehran has been “spreading havoc, terror and instability all over the world, and especially in our region”, he said.

Iran has proxies all over the Middle East and terror cells all around the world, Mr Herzog went on.

“We were attacked last night from four corners of the Middle East with proxies shooting at us, firing missiles and ballistic missiles, drones and cruise missiles,” he said.

More on Iran

“This is like a real war. I mean, this is a declaration of war,” he said, before adding that Israel would exercise restraint.

Asked by Sky’s Middle East correspondent, Alistair Bunkall, whether he agreed with the comments of Western allies who are calling for calm, Mr Herzog said: “The last thing that Israel is seeking in this region since its creation is to go to war – we are seeking peace.”

Rishi Sunak confirmed the RAF shot down “a number” of Iranian attack drones.

The UK prime minister said “additional planes” were sent to the region as part of operations already under way in Iraq and Syria.

Had Iran’s attack on Israel been successful, the “fallout for regional stability would be hard to overstate”, Mr Sunak added.

“This was a dangerous and unnecessary escalation which I have condemned in the strongest terms,” he said.

US planes reportedly downed Iranian drones over northern Syria too.

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Will Israel respond to Iran’s attacks?

Meanwhile, the Israel Defence Forces is “poised and prepared for further aggression”, IDF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner told Sky News.

He also called the defence of Israel a “unity of reasonable players against the diabolical plan of Iran”.

Asked if Israel would respond, he said: “It’s a very good question. We are looking towards the government today, the government will convene later today and they will make their decisions and instruct the military accordingly.”

Iran‘s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has said it was responding to an “attack on the consular section of the Iranian embassy in Damascus” on 1 April.

Two generals and seven members of the IRGC were killed in the strike, which Tehran blamed on Israel. Israel has not publicly commented.

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Joe Biden reaffirms US ‘ironclad’ support of Israel after Iran missile and drone attacks

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Joe Biden reaffirms US 'ironclad' support of Israel after Iran missile and drone attacks

Joe Biden has reaffirmed the US’s “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security after Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles in an “unprecedented” attack.

With additional launches in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, over 300 drones and missiles, including 120 ballistic missiles and 30 cruise missiles, were fired at Israel.

RAF planes were involved in the defence of Israel on Saturday evening in a support capacity, Sky News understands, while US planes reportedly downed Iranian drones over northern Syria.

Follow live updates of Iran’s attack on Israel

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an emergency war cabinet to discuss the situation late on Saturday night, while, in Washington, US President Joe Biden also held an emergency meeting with top security officials.

Benjamin Netanyahu with his war cabinet on Saturday. Pic: Israeli PM's office
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Benjamin Netanyahu with his war cabinet on Saturday. Pic: Israeli PM’s office

In a statement following the meeting, Mr Biden reaffirmed the US’s “ironclad” commitment to “Israel’s security against threats from Iran and its proxies”.

Across Israel, the military sounded sirens in multiple locations in southern areas last night as well as in parts of the occupied West Bank, an alert app showed.

A matter of hours after the attack from Iran, Lebanon fired rockets into northern Israel – who responded with their own launches.

Sky News international correspondent Alex Rossi, in Jerusalem, said he had heard “explosions” and seen “what look like air defence interception systems”.

Objects are seen in the sky above Jerusalem after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel in Jerusalem
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Objects are seen in the sky above Jerusalem after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel in Jerusalem

Interceptor missiles are launched into the sky in Jerusalem
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Interceptor missiles are launched into the sky in Jerusalem

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said it was responding to an “attack on the consular section of the Iranian embassy in Damascus” on 1 April.

Two generals and seven members of the IRGC were killed in the strike, which Tehran blamed on Israel. Israel has not publicly commented.

However, early on Sunday morning, a senior Israeli source told Channel 12 TV that the country was planning a “significant response” to the Iranian drone salvo.

Iran’s foreign ministry said Tehran would “not hesitate” to take “further defensive measures” to “safeguard its legitimate interests against any military aggressions”.

The response will be “much larger than last night’s if Israel retaliates against Iran”, the chief of staff of its armed forces Major General Mohammad Bagheri told state TV. IRG commander Hossein Salami added that Tehran will retaliate against any attack on its “interests, officials or citizens”.

Emergency services work at a destroyed building hit by an air strike in Damascus, Syria, Monday, April 1, 2024. An Israeli airstrike has destroyed the consular section of Iran's embassy in Damascus, killing or wounding everyone inside, Syrian state media said Monday. (AP Photo/Omar Sanadiki)
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An airstrike destroyed the consular section of Iran’s embassy in Damascus, killing or wounding a number of Iranian commanders earlier this month. Pic: AP

Ten-year-old “severely injured” by shrapnel

Israel Defence Forces (IDF) spokesman Daniel Hagari told a news conference “99%” of the projectiles were intercepted.

Mr Hagari said: “Regretfully, a 10-year-old was severely injured from shrapnel. We send them our wishes of quick recovery.

“Except for them, as far as we know, there have not been any other casualties and yet this event is not over.”

He added: “Iran pushed the Middle East towards escalation. We will do whatever is necessary in order to defend Israel.”

Air sirens sound in Israel

As the IDF announced the Iranian attack had begun, as did the White House, this weekend, it advised people in the Golan Heights, Nevatim, Dimona and Eilat to take shelter.

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Sky’s Alex Rossi reports live from Jerusalem

More than 300 drones and missiles were launched by Tehran, along with 30 cruise missiles – 25 of which were intercepted outside Israel’s borders, according to the IDF.

They said Israeli forces had “successfully intercepted” the majority of the launches with its air defence system – as well as with help from its strategic allies – before they reached Israel.

Mr Hagari said the Nevatim Air Force base had been targeted and struck, suffering “slight damage to infrastructure alone” but it continued to function.

In this image released by the White House, President Joe Biden, third from right, meets with members of the National Security team regarding the unfolding missile attacks on Israel from Iran, Saturday, April 13, 2024, in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington. (Adam Schultz/The White House via AP)
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US President Joe Biden meets with members of the National Security team. Pic: White House via AP

Mr Hagari also said 120 ballistic missiles were launched at Israel, but only a few managed to cross the border.

Drones were seen flying from Iran, through Iraqi airspace and in the direction of Israel, two Iraqi security sources told Reuters.

The drones are carrying 20kg of explosives each, Amos Yadlin, a retired general in the Israeli air force, told Channel 12 TV.

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Iraq and Jordan close airspace

An ‘unprecedented’ attack

Mr Biden labelled the attack by Iran and its “proxies operating out of Yemen, Syria and Iraq”, as “unprecedented”.

He condemned it in the strongest possible terms and said that the US military had moved aircrafts and ballistic missile defence destroyers to the region over the course of the past week.

He also spoke to Mr Netanyahu and reaffirmed his “ironclad” support for Israel and said he was going to convene his fellow G7 leaders in response to “Iran’s brazen attack”.

‘Attack further undermines regional security’

US, British and French planes assisted in the Israeli response to the attack.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said in a statement that additional RAF jets and air refuelling tankers had also been deployed to the region to “bolster” Operation Shader – the UK’s existing counter-IS operation in Iraq and Syria.

“In addition, the jets will intercept airborne attacks within range of our existing missions,” he said.

“I strongly condemn the senseless airborne attack that Iran has launched on Israel. It serves no benefit other than to further undermine regional security.”

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Jets from Jordan are also thought to have shot down Iranian drones flying across their airspace towards Israel, security sources have told the news agency Reuters – despite Tehran issuing an earlier warning to the country not to interfere with their strikes.

Israeli aviation authorities closed the country’s airspace to all flights – but it was reopened again several hours after the attacks.

Wing of Zion – Israel’s version of Air Force One – is airborne because of “operational considerations” and Mr Hagari added that the situation was “still unfolding”, and Israel continued to monitor its borders.

‘Reckless attack’

Earlier, Israel called off school trips and other youth activities planned for the coming days.

Jordan temporarily closed its airspace, state media reported, as did Iraq. Both have now reopened.

Egypt said its air defences were on alert.

Eithad airways has cancelled its services today to Tel Aviv in Israel and Amman in Jordan.

Read more:
Direct attack against Israel by Iran is unprecedented
Iran attack on Israel: Everything we know so far

Israel’s PM vows Rafah invasion will go ahead

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Explosions light up the sky above Jerusalem

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he condemned “in the strongest terms the Iranian regime’s reckless attack against Israel”.

He added: “Iran has once again demonstrated that it is intent on sowing chaos in its own backyard.

“The UK will continue to stand up for Israel’s security and that of all our regional partners, including Jordan and Iraq.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “We condemn the Iranian regime’s decision to subject Israelis to these unacceptable attacks.

“The international community has been united in urging restraint, and we regret that, yet again, Iran has chosen a different, dangerous path.”

Saudi Arabia also called on all parties to exercise the “utmost levels” of restraint and to spare the region and its people the dangers of war, while UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres also urged “maximum restraint”.

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All-out war, or not, in the Middle East? Biden’s test at the most dangerous moment

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All-out war, or not, in the Middle East? Biden's test at the most dangerous moment

“What next?” It’s a question anxiously asked too many times in the past six months.

And no doubt the question formed the crux of the late-night call between President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Follow live: Iran launches attack on Israel

Iran’s spectacular drone and missile assault on Israel is truly unprecedented.

A region already reeling from the Hamas attacks and the Israeli retaliation on Gaza is being rocked again.

American leadership and leverage, tested repeatedly, is undergoing a bigger strain still.

This time though the consequence of President Biden’s test is all-out war, or not, in the Middle East. It is the scenario most feared since 7 October.

More on Iran

Without question, this moment – right now – is the most dangerous yet, by a long way.

A direct attack by Iran, from Iranian soil, against Israel is a red line crossed in Tel Aviv.

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The aftermath of the airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on 1 April. Pic: Reuters

Iran’s trigger was another unprecedented moment and another red line crossed, on 1 April, when a missile landed on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria killing 16 people. The Israeli trigger for that? Iran’s malign regional behaviour, as they would see it.

Tit, tat, tit, tat. You can see how this spirals. It explains the grim faces of the US president and his officials in the White House situation room overnight.

Even though so many of the drones and missiles were intercepted and despite no mass casualty scenario, Israelis will feel profoundly vulnerable, and the Israeli government may feel compelled to retaliate.

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Explosions light up sky above Jerusalem

Impressions and the re-establishment of deterrence count for a lot in the Middle East.

That is precisely why Iran hit back after the Damascus consulate attack. It’s also why Israel may be unable to ignore Tehran’s weekend wave of drones and missiles. Never in its history has Israel faced an aerial assault like this.

Read more:
Netanyahu convenes Israeli war cabinet as Iran attacks

Direct attack against Israel by Iran is unprecedented
Iran attack on Israel: Everything we know so far

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And of course, in the White House they know all this all too well. But we all know too that the US-Israeli relationship has been severely strained by Gaza.

President Biden’s test now is to balance the action and reaction of a nation facing a moment that will feel, internally, to be existential with the consequences of an all-out regional war.

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Why has Iran launched drones?

Significant Jewish settler violence in the West Bank, Hezbollah attacks from southern Lebanon and the continued disaster in Gaza all risk compounding the chaos.

Iran’s actions were more than anyone had expected. An unprecedented and enormously risky attack on Israel. It was an extreme attempt to re-establish deterrence. That works both ways.

Just six months ago, days before 7 October, President Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan wrote “the region is quieter than it has been for decades… We have de-escalated crises in Gaza & restored direct diplomacy…”

He was spectacularly misguided.

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