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Russian jets buzz NATO warships in Baltic Sea

File photo: Two Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft fly over USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) April 12, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
November 21, 2022

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) said a pair of Russian fighter jets flew within only a few hundred feet of a group of NATO warships in the Baltic Sea on Thursday as the allied ships were in the middle of air defense training. The close Russian military overflight could have resulted in a misunderstanding or miscalculation that could turn into a broader conflict between NATO and Russia.

In a Friday press statement, NATO said the pair of Russian fighters flew toward Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1), which was conducting routine operations in the Baltic Sea at the time. The Russian fighter pilots reportedly failed to respond to NATO communications and flew at an altitude of 300 feet over the water and at a distance of 80 yards from the NATO warships as the allied ships were holding air defense training.

“NATO deemed the interaction unsafe and unprofessional since it was conducted in a known danger area, which was activated for air defense training, and due to the aircraft altitude and proximity,” the NATO statement read. “The interaction increased the risk of miscalculations, mistakes, and accidents.”

The NATO statement said its forces acted responsibly throughout the interaction and fulfilled their training mission in compliance with international air and maritime regulations.

“NATO will respond appropriately to any interference with NATO’s lawful activity in the area that endangers the safety of our aircraft, ships or their crews,” the alliance statement read. “NATO does not seek confrontation and poses no threat.”

The Baltic Sea runs along the eastern edge of the NATO alliance, touching the shores of multiple NATO-allied countries as well as Russia. NATO has maintained an increased presence along the eastern edge of the alliance territory in recent months as Russian forces are continuing to fight in nearby Ukraine.

It is not clear exactly why the Russian fighter jets flew so close to the NATO maritime group. The aggressive posture of the Russian jets could have been interpreted as an attack sortie and their decision not to respond to the NATO group’s communications would make it even harder for both sides to clear up any potential misunderstandings.

The tense interaction over the Baltic Sea also came just two days after a missile landed in Poland — a NATO-allied nation — and killed two people. Multiple western media outlets initially reported, based on comments from unnamed U.S. intelligence officials, that the missile that landed in Poland was fired by Russia. U.S. President Joe Biden, Polish President Andrzej Duda and other NATO leaders later voiced doubts that the missile that landed in Poland was launched by Russian forces, but not before the incident prompted discussions about Poland invoking NATO Article 5 and pulling the alliance into a direct confrontation with Russia.