NATO says one of its planes engaged in interception and escort duties in international airspace over the Baltic Sea was approached in an "unsafe manner" by a Russian jet on Tuesday, Baltic News Service reports.
The plane, a Spanish air force (Ejército del Aire), is based at Šiauliai, Lithuania, as part of NATO's Baltic air policing role.
Russian news agency TASS claimed the plane was "chased off" by an intercepting Sukhoi Su-27 (NATO codename: Flanker) and that the fighter was one of two escorting a Tupolev Tu-214 airliner carrying Russian defense minister Sergey Shoygu.
NATO confirmed the plane types and the incident, which first came to light in the international media on Tuesday, but was unable to confirm whether Shoygu was on board.
TASS said that Shoygu was flying back from the Kaliningrad exclave after attending a Naval ceremony there.
"NATO can confirm that a Russian Tu-214 aircraft, escorted by two Russian Su-27 fighter airplanes, were tracked over the Baltic Sea in the early afternoon (local time) on Aug. 13," a NATO spokesperson told BNS Wednesday.
"Once the planes' intention was assessed, the two F-18 aircraft turned left to move away from the intercepted aircraft. Shortly before that, one of the Russian Su-27 fighters also turned left to almost cut into the flight path of one of the F-18s in an unsafe manner. Due to the quick and professional reaction of the F-18 pilot, a potentially dangerous situation for both airplanes was avoided," the spokesperson continued.
"The Tu-214 airplane had a valid flight plan, did identify itself and responded to air traffic control. The two escorting Su-27 flew without a flight plan, their transponders were switched off and they did not talk to air traffic control," the spokesperson added, noting that the order to scramble and make a visual on the planes came from the NATO Combined Air Operations Center in Uedem, Germay.
Such interceptions are an almost daily occurrence, NATO says. While the bulk of the reported incidents occur in international airspace, Russian flights' inconsistency in adhering to international protocols such as pre-filing a flight plan, having a functioning in-flight transponder, and/or maintaining contact with regional air traffic control, are behind most of the NATO intercepts.
The practice of "buzzing" both planes and navy vessels has been common on the part of Russian military jets in the Black Sea also, with both U.S. and U.K. warships experiencing very close overflights in that region in recent years. Russia itself says it is the NATO planes which are engaging in "buzzing".
Tuesday's event is not the first such reported incident involving Shoygu. An almost identical incident occurred in the same region in June 2017, it is reported.
Spanish planes have been stationed at Šiauliai since May and their stint reportedly ends at the end of this month. Eurofighter Typhoon's from Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) have been based at Ämari, west of Tallinn, also engaged in a NATO air policing role. According to international media reports, these planes have been involved in interceptions at least 16 times since they arrived in May.
Editor: Andrew Whyte