NATO fighter jets buzz plane carrying Russia’s defense minister
MOSCOW — NATO fighter jets confronted a plane carrying Russia’s defense minister in neutral airspace over the Baltic Sea on Wednesday morning before being chased away by a Russian warplane.
NATO confirmed the face-off, but denied acting aggressively or knowing that the defense minister was on board.
The confrontation was the latest of many over the Baltics, a heavily militarized area where Russian and NATO jets regularly jostle. The high-altitude encounter raised new fears about the possibility of an aerial conflict — whether intentional or accidental — during a time of particularly high tensions between Moscow and the West.
On Sunday, the US military shot down a Syrian warplane, the first time it had done so since Syria’s civil war began in 2011.
The next day, Moscow issued a stark warning, threatening to target aircraft flown by the United States and its allies west of the Euphrates River, and suspending use of a hotline that the US and Russian militaries have used to avoid collisions in Syrian airspace.
Also on Monday, a Russian jet flew within several feet of a US reconnaissance plane over the Baltics.
The Russian defense minister, Sergey K. Shoigu, was flying to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad when the face-off with the NATO jet occurred, Russian media reported.
NATO planes “attempted to escort” the plane carrying Shoigu over the Baltic Sea, according to an account by the Russian news agency Tass, which had a reporter on board at the time.
“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 weapons,” the agency reported. “The F-16 then flew away.”
A video of the faceoff, published by the Russian news channel Zvezda, showed one fighter jet pushing another away from the minister’s plane.
In a statement, NATO said it had acted appropriately.
“NATO can confirm that three Russian aircraft, including two fighters, were tracked over the Baltic Sea earlier today,” it said. “As the aircraft did not identify themselves or respond to air traffic control, NATO fighter jets scrambled to identify them, according to standard procedures. NATO has no information as to who was on board.”
Asked whether the Russian pilots had provoked the encounter, NATO said: “We assess the Russian pilots’ behavior as safe and professional.”
The encounter occurred against the backdrop of a military buildup in the Baltics. The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union, joined NATO in 2004 and, along with Poland, are at the front lines of what some critics have called a Cold War-style chill.
Last fall, Russia deployed nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, between Lithuania and Poland, and the United States and its NATO allies have stepped up military exercises and deployed troops in the region.
Shoigu, after landing in Kaliningrad, where he met with Russian military commanders, accused the West of endangering global security.
“Some countries are seeking to use military force as a tool to achieve geopolitical goals, apart from political, informational, and economic pressure,” Shoigu said, alluding to the Western sanctions imposed against Russia after its 2014 operations in Ukraine. “These unjustified actions of our Western colleagues lead to the destruction of the security system in the world,” he added. “It increases mutual distrust and forces us to respond.”