U.S. and Russian aircraft flew dangerously close to each other in at least three interactions over the weekend, according to reports citing U.S. defense officials.
The incidents occured on Friday and Saturday and involved three Su-35 jet fighters intersecting with the flight path of three U.S. Navy P-8A surveillance aircraft, U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal. The Pentagon reportedly assessed two of the interactions as “unsafe” and the third as “unprofessional.” The officials did not confirm how close the Russian fighters traveled to the U.S. aircraft on any of the three occasions, nor did they divulge any other details from the purported interceptions. Unnamed sources indicated to CNN that there is video footage of the interaction. The Kremlin has not commented on the alleged incident as of the time of writing. Russian and U.S. military aircraft regularly come into contact in international airspace, but these interactions are typically conducted in a manner that is deemed safe and professional by both sides.
“We have made our concerns known to Russian officials through diplomatic channels,” Pentagon spokesman Navy capt. Mike Kafka told reporters. “While no one was hurt, interactions such as these could result in miscalculations and mistakes that lead to more dangerous outcomes. The US will continue to operate safely, professionally and consistent with international law in international waters and airspace. We expect Russia to do the same."
The encounter comes amid large-scale Russian military exercises in the Mediterranean. Russia’s Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 bombers and MiG-31K fighters carrying Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBM’s) were dispatched to Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in Syria as part of the drills. The exercises coincide with Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu’s trip to Syria this week. According to a Russian Defense Ministry statement, Shoigu inspected the Hmeymim base over the course of the drills and met with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to discuss “various issues of military-technical cooperation between the countries.”
The interceptions in Mediterranean airspace come amid a continued military standoff between Russia and NATO in Eastern Europe, with the Biden administration warning that the Russian forces allegedly massing along Ukraine’s eastern border are poised to strike at any moment.
Moscow has signaled its willingness to work toward de-escalation, with Russian president Vladimir Putin announcing his decision on Tuesday to “partially withdraw forces” from the region as part of a renewed call for diplomatic talks with the West.
Washington remains unconvinced by Moscow’s peacemaking gestures. “There's what Russia says and what Russia does,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told MSNBC. “We haven't seen any pullback of its forces,” Blinken added.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.