Russian, NATO Planes Play Risky Game Over Baltic Sea

More adversarial flights, close intercepts raise concerns of accidents and escalation

NATO and Russian pilots are reviving a Cold War contest of nerves, increasing the risk that airborne close encounters could accidentally spark a conflict.

Over the past three years, the number of adversarial flights near the other side’s planes and ships have increased significantly. The tactic, usually meant as a show of force or used to test tactics, revives a dormant game of chicken long played by Soviet and North Atlantic Treaty Organization pilots.

It was a risky game: Aircraft sometimes narrowly avoided midair collisions, and opposing ships occasionally collided at sea. NATO officials now worry about a new phase of reckless gamesmanship and its consequences.

A U.S. RC-135U, flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea, is intercepted by a Russian SU-27 Flanker on June 19.
A U.S. RC-135U, flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea, is intercepted by a Russian SU-27 Flanker on June 19. PHOTO: MASTER SGT. CHARLES LARKIN SR./U.S. AIR FORCE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Concerns have risen to the point where they now figure large in conversations between NATO and Russia. The NATO-Russia Council, a body established in 2002 to encourage cooperation and consultation between Moscow and the alliance, is set to meet Thursday to discuss large-scale Russian exercises in September. Western officials worry the exercises could lead to a new surge in midair incidents.

The Baltic Sea has become the focal point for this new white-knuckle geopolitical tussle. Rhetoric is rising in the region, where newer NATO members on Russia’s border are nervous and Russia’s military has shown a willingness to use close intercepts as political messages.

NATO and U.S. officials believe an accidental air-to-air collision, or a plane crashing into a ship, is one of the most dangerous threats facing the alliance. A deadly mishap could engender an escalation—with each side accusing the other of provocation.

“What we see in the Baltic Sea is increased military activity—we see it on land, at sea and in the air, and that just underlines the importance of transparency and predictability to prevent incidents and accidents,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “And if they happen, it is important to make sure they don’t spiral out of control and create dangerous situations.”

Allies are expected to raise the issue of the intercepts at Thursday’s meeting, officials said. Allied officials said risk reduction in the Baltic Sea is a concern, in particular in light of what one NATO official called “unsafe and unprofessional behaviors by Russian pilots.”

The air-safety issue has been discussed in that forum before, but it is taking on renewed urgency because of the coming exercises and several close calls this year.

Global Zero, a research and advocacy group that opposes nuclear weapons, analyzed 97 midair confrontations between Western and Russian military aircraft over the Baltic between March 2014 and April 2017, more than two-thirds the global total of air intercepts in that period. Such confrontations were rarer in the decade before Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014.

Markers are already down. The U.S. recently accused a Russian Su-27 jet fighter of unsafely intercepting an American reconnaissance plane on June 19 and flying erratically just yards away from it.

Two days later, Russian television broadcast footage appeared to show a Polish F-16 approaching a plane with the Russian defense minister on board. A Russian Su-27 fighter then zooms into the picture, performing what the Russians described as a warning maneuver before flying away. The channel quoted Russian military expert Alexander Zhilin as saying the allied pilots “are conducting themselves simply like bandits.”

Poland has said its plane was on a NATO patrol mission when it intercepted the Russian jet. NATO officials have said there was nothing unprofessional about the intercept.

Western officials and the Global Zero report say it is Russian pilots who more often undertake unsafe intercepts. Some, they say, are accidents, some negligence, and others intentional shows of force.

Lukasz Kulesa, research director at the European Leadership Network, a London-based think tank, said some of the most recent incidents “seem to be connected to sending a message to the other side.”

Mr. Kulesa noted that Russian aircraft approached American spy planes over the Baltic Sea shortly after an escalation in the confrontation between the U.S.-led coalition and the Syrian regime that led to the shooting down of a pro-regime drone and Syrian warplane by American aircraft.

“It’s a way to say that we, the Russians, are displeased with your behavior,” Mr. Kulesa said.

A Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft flying over the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea in April 2016.
A Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft flying over the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea in April 2016. PHOTO: US NAVY/REUTERS

Some allied and U.S. officials believe the Russian government uses confrontations to turn up and down the pressure in the region for geopolitical advantage, ordering pilots to be cautious or to approach more aggressively.

Moscow denies this and that their pilots are at fault, saying it is the West that has been eroding security by building up its military forces on Russia’s borders.

NATO and Russia are working to agree on “risk reduction” measures in the Baltic region. Western and Russian officials say progress is a test of each side’s seriousness about dialogue despite deep suspicion.

“We share the view dialogue is important,” Alexander Grushko, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, said last month. “The prevention of military incidents demands…systemic communications between the two militaries, and discussions [by] military experts.”

Finland has organized one discussion between NATO and Russia on safety measures and proposed requiring all planes to use transponders. Allied officials have reacted skeptically to the transponder measure, noting many Russian military aircraft don’t have transponders. American reconnaissance planes also don’t always operate with them on.

Many Western official fear the large military exercises Russia and Belarus are planning for the fall will raise the risk of an incident. In a sign of the concern about potential provocations by Russia, the U.S. adjusted the rotation of fighter planes for the NATO air-policing mission in the Baltic, so that its planes rather than those of less-experienced pilots from other NATO countries would be on alert during the Russian exercises in the fall.

When Russia begins its major exercise, called Zapad or West, over the Baltic airspace in September, Sweden will be conducting its own, called Aurora, joined by a number of NATO countries,.

“We hope everyone keeps calm,” Finnish Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö said.

Write to Nathan Hodge at


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One Response to “Russian, NATO Planes Play Risky Game Over Baltic Sea”

  1. Brittius Says:

    Reblogged this on Brittius.

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