Russian pilots more mindful over Baltic Sea than Black Sea

2015 photo released by the Danish Ministry of Defense, which shows a Russian SU-34 over the Baltic. The plane's transponder was reportedly switched off.
2015 photo released by the Danish Ministry of Defense, which shows a Russian SU-34 over the Baltic. The plane's transponder was reportedly switched off. Source: SCANPIX / AFP

Russian warplanes have been caught performing dangerous maneuvers in international airspace over the Black Sea. Russian planes have flown dangerously close to NATO ships also in the Baltic Sea, while in the air, Russian pilots tend to stick to the rules over the Baltic.

On Tuesday, a Russian jet collided with a U.S. drone in international airspace over the Black Sea. Dangerous maneuvers by Russian pilots are nothing new.

While there is nothing stopping the Russians from flying in international airspace, there is an unwritten good practice and aerial manners to consider, Col. Janek Lehiste, chief of staff for the Estonian Air Force, told ERR.

"Just like ordinary people say hello, there is common courtesy in aviation. The first rule is maintaining safety whatever you do. As concerns military aviation, maneuvers that could be interpreted as hostile action are avoided during peacetime," Lehiste said.

For example, if a Russian plane hurtles toward a warship at an altitude of just a few dozen meters, it looks like an attack even if the plane ends up just tipping its wing to the boat. Besides, even a small miscalculation could end up in a collision.

"There have been cases where Russian planes fly over NATO ships at a very low altitude," Lehiste said.

A recent incident took place in the Baltic Sea on November 17. Two Russian fighter jets passed inside 70 meters of NATO vessels.

However, flying higher over the Baltic, Russian planes have rather kept to the unwritten rulebook, the colonel suggested. While NATO fighters have to escort Russian planes flying close to Estonia in international airspace on a weekly basis, such meetings usually pass without incident.

"Above all, they have practical need for flying here. Russia's links to Kaliningrad are aerial or naval. They have to fly here, and conduct their aerial reconnaissance operations. They are gauging NATO posture and presence in the area. However, contact between the Russians and allies has been within the norm so far," Lehiste explained.

There are several reasons why Russian aircraft are escorted near Estonia, even if they do not violate NATO airspace. "The simplest example is lack of information. We know that we need to do something, while we have no flight plan information for that aircraft and neither do civilian air controllers. In such situations, jets are usually scrambled to go and see who we're dealing with. We record the aircraft's external markings etc. And that is the end of the incident in most cases."

Checks are also carried out to make sure the aircraft flying is the same one described in the flight plan or when there are several Russian planes in the air. There could be other reasons, Lehiste said.

"The Estonian Air Force is keeping an eye on everything taking place in Estonian airspace and near to it. NATO jets can be scrambled at any moment to respond to threats or anomalies," the colonel remarked.

On March 14, two Russian Su-27 jets conducted unsafe and unprofessional maneuvers intercepting a U.S. MQ9 drone.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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