A group of NATO fighter jets buzzed a private plane carrying the Russian defense minister as the aircraft crossed through the neutral airspace over the Baltic Sea on Wednesday morning. The F-16s were ultimately chased off by a Russian warplane, raising concerns regarding potential aerial conflicts during a time where tensions between Russia and the West are particularly high.
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As reported by the New York Times, NATO admitted to confronting the Russian aircraft but denies accusations that their actions were aggressive in nature. Additionally, NATO stated they were unaware of the Russian defense minister being onboard.
Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, was en route to Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave, at the time of the incidence. According to a Russian news reporter who was onboard the defense minister’s aircraft, the NATO F-16 “attempted to escort” the plane across the Baltic Sea.
The agency reported, “One of the NATO planes tried to approach the defense minister’s aircraft, but a Russian Su-27 fighter jet inserted itself in the middle and tilted its wings from side to side to show its weapon.” The statement continued, “The F-16 then flew away.”
This face-off is just one of many that have occurred in the airspace over the Baltics. The area is highly militarized, and NATO and Russian fighter jets have had regular encounters, though this most recent action has increased fears that an aerial conflict is possible.
After the US military shot down a warplane from Syria on Sunday, Moscow released a statement threatening American aircraft and those of its allies operating in the area. A hotline used by the US and Russian militaries designed to avoid accidental collisions within Syrian airspace was also suspended by the Russian government.
On Monday, a Russian fighter jet also came within feet of an American reconnaissance aircraft flying over the Baltics.
In a statement released by NATO, the organization asserted it acted appropriately.
“NATO can confirm that three Russian aircraft, including two fighters, were tracked over the Baltic Sea earlier today,” said the statement. “As the aircraft did not identify themselves or respond to air traffic control, NATO fighter jets scrambled to identify them, according to standard procedures.” The statement continued, “NATO has not information as to who was on board.”
When asked whether the Russian fighters provoked the encounter, NATO responded, “We assess the Russian pilots’ behavior as safe and professional.”
After landing in Kaliningrad, Shoigu stated the West’s actions endangered global security. He said, “These unjustified actions of our Western colleagues lead to the destruction of the security system in the world,” continuing, “It increases the mutual distrust and forces us to respond.”
NATO aircraft also followed Shoigu’s plane during his return trip from Kaliningrad. A Russian news organization stated “the NATO aircraft made no attempt to approach the minister’s plane, instead following it at a significant distance” during the defense minister’s return journey.