Britain's military has belatedly revealed a dramatic live fire incident over the Black Sea that involved Russian jets in late September. It underscores just how close at any moment Russia and NATO powers could be from an 'inadvertent' exchange of fire possibly spiraling into broader war.
UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has informed the House of Commons on Thursday that a during a September 29 patrol by a British spy plane over the Black Sea, a Russian fighter "released a missile" in the vicinity of the aircraft.
It involved an "unarmed RAF RC-135 Rivet Joint" which was operating in "international airspace over the Black Sea" being "interacted with" by two Russian Su-27s, according to the defense chief's briefing to lawmakers.
One of the Russian fighters then "released a missile in the vicinity of the RAF Rivet Joint beyond visual range," Wallace detailed. Russia subsequently laid blame for the missile release on technical error, saying it wasn't intentional.
Russia in a message given to the UK defense ministry called the missile release a “technical malfunction." Wallace described that in the aftermath:
"The patrol completed and the aircraft returned to its base," he said. "In light of this potentially dangerous engagement, I have communicated my concerns directly to my Russian counterpart, Defence Minister [Sergei] Shoigu, and the chief of defence staff in Moscow."
"In my letter I made clear the aircraft was unarmed, in international airspace, and following a pre-notified flight path. I felt it was prudent to suspend these patrols until a response was received by the Russian state," Wallace said additionally.
"The reply by the Russian minister of defense on October 10 stated they have conducted an investigation into the circumstances of the incident and stated it was a technical malfunction of the Su-27 fighter. They also acknowledge that the incident took place in international airspace."
Wallace said that UK allies have been informed of the dangerous close-call incident, while further affirming that routine patrols in the region have been resumed at this point, but will have fighter jet escorts. "Everything we do is considered calibrated with regard to ongoing conflict in the region and in accordance with international law," he emphasized in the briefing to parliamentarians.
While the highly alarming brief encounter between nuclear-armed rival militaries is now being downplayed, perhaps for the sake of tensions not exploding further between London and Moscow at a moment the Ukraine conflict continues to escalate, one possible or even likely scenario is that the Russian fighter had following the initial intercept of the spy plane fired a "warning shot" in an attempt to dissuade these NATO surveillance patrols over the Black Sea near Russia.