Amid heightened tensions between the U.S. led coalition and Russia in the air over Syria, a NATO F-16 fighter attempted to intercept a jet, believed to be a Tu-154, carrying Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergey Shoygu, over the Baltic Sea in Northeast Europe.
According to reports, the F-16, which may belong to the Polish Air Force, approached the aircraft initially, but was warned away by an armed Su-27 fighter jet that was escorting the Russian official’s aircraft.
NATO has not yet made an official statement regarding the interaction, but according to Russian journalists traveling with the Defense Minister, the aircraft was flying over international waters en route to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to meet with government officials about Russia’s defenses on the Western Flank.
As the NATO F-16 approached, one of possibly multiple Su-27s flying in escort positions placed itself between the approaching fighter and the government jet. Once clearly within the eyeline of the F-16, the Su-27 pilot reportedly tilted his aircraft to show the NATO fighter that it was armed. Approximately a minute after that brief interaction, the F-16 departed the area.
Kaliningrad separates NATO allies Poland and Lithuania except for a stretch of approximately 65 miles of farmland, woods and low hills known as the Suwalki Gap. Latvia and Estonia, also members of NATO, lie north of Lithuania, meaning that short expanse of land provides the only ground based supply route to the Baltic States. If the Russian military were to launch an offensive from Kaliningrad, they could potentially cut Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia off from their NATO allies, making their eventual capture a likely possibility.
In order to ensure such an event does not occur, the United States Army and British Royal Marines joined soldiers from Poland and Lithuania to execute a series of war games and exercises intended to prepare the diverse force to work together in order to counter a Russian incursion. These exercises, which include U.S. led medevac drills, are intended to not only serve as a means to increase international cooperation within NATO, but to dissuade Russia from considering such an attack.
Of course, Russia has made a number of public statements indicating that these latest exercises, like the overall bolstering of NATO defenses along Europe’s eastern borders, are aggressive actions brought about by a growing anti-Russian sentiment in the West. Russia, of course, does not acknowledge repeated statements from NATO nation leaders regarding the reason for their heightened security concerns: Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014.
An armed Russian Su-27 fighter jet intercepted an unarmed US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the same waterway one day prior, coming to within five feet of the American aircraft’s wingtip in an encounter the U.S. government has categorized as both “unsafe and unprofessional.” U.S. officials even went so far as to accuse the Russian pilot of having “poor control” of his aircraft.
Of course, these interactions are remarkably peaceful compared to Russian threats in Syria – where U.S. jets have shot down two armed Iranian drones and one Syrian Su-22 in defense of coalition backed forces. As a result, Russia has declared that they will target any U.S. aircraft flying in their vicinity West of the Euphrates River.
No U.S.-Russian intercepts have occurred over Syria thus far, but concerns remain high that American fighters could potentially find themselves facing off against Russian jets. Such an altercation would certainly have significant effects on U.S.-Russian relations, and could potentially lead to war.
You can see a video of the interaction between the NATO F-16 and the Russian Su-27 below.
Image courtesy of YouTube