US and Russian aircraft have reported dozens of run-ins and close calls in the airspace around Syria and the Baltic States as tensions between President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have persisted despite the two leaders’ ostensibly amicable relationship. And in a bid to show the world the extent to which the relationship has deteriorated, US Air Forces Europe has released previously unseen video of two intercepts of Russian fighters that occurred last fall over the Baltic, ABC reports.
The videos were released as part of an effort to highlight the US military’s participation in the NATO Air Policing mission in the Baltics. Naturally, reminding the US’s partners in NATO of the crucial role played by the US military fits with Trump’s rhetoric urging other NATO members to help offset some of the US’s economic burden. The US is among the NATO member countries that routinely rotate aircraft and personnel to the Baltic countries on short deployments.
These aircraft are meant to intercept Russian planes that fly into the airspace around the Baltic Sea without filing a flight plan, don’t communicate civilian air traffic controllers or don’t turn on the transponders that identify them as belonging to the Russian military.
“Such aircraft create unsafe environments including air-to-air mishaps or these actions may indicate hostile acts such as hijackings,” says a factsheet about the mission posted on a NATO website. “Air Policing responses seek to ensure the safety of the airspace and its users.”
For the last four months, the 493rd Fighter Squadron has been in Lithuania leading the NATO policing mission. It has conducted about 30 intercepts of Russian aircraft. The videos shows two intercepts of Russian fighters on Nov. 23 and Dec. 13 that occurred in the international airspace above the Baltic Sea. In each case two F-15's intercepted two Russian Navy Su-30s.
A US Air Forces Europe press release said both intercepts were initiated "because the Russian aircraft did not broadcast the appropriate codes required by air traffic control and had no flight plan on file."
Lt. Col. Cody Blake, the commander of the 493rd squadron says the intercepts “don't happen on a day to day basis but it is a routine thing." adding "they're always conducted in a safe and professional manner." Blake said the intercepts ensure the sovereignty of the airspace of Baltic countries.
US military and defense officials regularly state that the majority of air encounters with Russian aircraft are safe and professional, although it is the "unsafe and unprofessional" encounters that regularly make the news. In those cases it’s less about how close the aircraft come to each other than the flight behavior demonstrated by Russian pilots towards American aircraft, or vice versa of course.
The Air Force’s video release also includes behind the scenes footage shot in 2014 that shows pilots quickly putting on their gear on short notice to scramble for an intercept.
The Baltic States have become one of the key battleground regions in Russia’s push against NATO expansion and as the Kremlin seeks to expand its own sphere of influence to encompass former constituent states of the Soviet Union. In September, Russia and neighboring Belarus conducted the Zapad military exercises, dubbed "the biggest display of military since the cold war". NATO has repeatedly criticized Russia for holding these exercises, which resemble a rehearsal for war with the treaty organization. Russia has also recently tested ICBMs which it says could evade anti-ballistic missile systems in Eastern Europe and South Korea.