NATO jet approached plane carrying Russian defense minister, reports say
By ANDREW ROTH | The Washington Post | Published: June 21, 2017
MOSCOW — A NATO F-16 fighter jet approached and was then warned away from a jet carrying Russia's defense minister, Russian media reported Wednesday, the latest in a string of aerial incidents that have marked rising tensions between the West and Russia.
The incident occurred over the Baltic Sea in northeastern Europe, according to reporters traveling with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in international airspace crowded with Russian and NATO jets testing one another's nerve in sometimes dangerous proximity.
But no incidents yet had involved aircraft with high-ranking Russian or U.S. government officials aboard.
NATO confirmed the intercept, saying in an emailed statement that "three Russian aircraft, including two fighters," had been tracked over the Baltic Sea. "As the aircraft did not identify themselves or respond to air traffic control, NATO fighter jets scrambled to identify them, according to standard procedure," the statement read. "NATO has no information as to who was on board. We assess the Russian pilots' behavior as safe and professional."
The brush comes after days of close calls over the Baltics, as well as the first downing of a Syrian government plane by U.S. forces in that war-torn country. In response to the shoot-down, Russia said it would begin tracking U.S. aircraft in Syria as potential targets.
Despite expectations that relations would warm under President Trump, a vocal admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, geopolitical hot spots from the Baltics to the Middle East have continued yielding tensions where U.S. and Russian military assets are in proximity.
The Ukrainian conflict has also remained a point of tension. The U.S. government on Tuesday introduced new sanctions against Russia, aimed at a shadowy paramilitary group called Wagner accused of fighting in Ukraine and Syria, as well as a company tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin associate sometimes called "Putin's chef."
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Wednesday that he was canceling an upcoming meeting with the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, Thomas Shannon, in St. Petersburg because of the new round of sanctions, which target 38 Russian individuals and firms.
"We regret that Russia has decided to turn away from an opportunity to discuss bilateral obstacles that hinder U.S.-Russia relations," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Wednesday. ". . . If the Russians seek an end to these sanctions, they know very well the U.S. position: Our sanctions on Russia related [to] Russia's ongoing aggression against Ukraine will remain in place until Russia fully honors its obligations under the Minsk Agreements. Our sanctions related to Crimea will not be lifted until Russia ends its occupation of the peninsula."
Trump and Putin were expected to meet for the first time next month during a Group of 20 summit in Hamburg. The meeting has been highly anticipated, a first encounter between two men who believe they can make use of each other despite a U.S. establishment livid over Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
But on Wednesday, Dmitry Peskov, Putin's press secretary, said that there were no plans yet for a meeting.
"It has not been prepared in any way for now, and nothing has been planned for July 7 so far," he told journalists, adding that the Kremlin does not rule out a meeting between Putin and Trump on the sidelines of the conference.
Peskov had previously said that the G-20 summit would be "a good occasion to meet."
Asked by a Washington Post reporter whether his remarks Wednesday indicated doubt that a meeting would take place, he replied, "It is still a good occasion."
There are concerns that the U.S.-Russian tensions could be playing out in the Baltics.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon said that an armed Russian Su-27 buzzed an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane, closing to a distance of five feet. U.S. officials told Fox News that the maneuver was "provocative." Russian officials blamed the pilot of the U.S. spy plane.
On Wednesday, Shoigu's jet was bound for the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad when it was intercepted by an F-16, the Russian reports said.
The NATO jet closed in and began flying parallel to Shoigu's plane, video shot on board and released by the Defense Ministry's Zvezda news agency showed.
A Russian Su-27 fighter accompanying Shoigu's plane then approached from behind and rocked its wings to show that it was armed. Then, the F-16 veered off.
NATO and Russia are building up their defenses in the Baltic region, where former Soviet states (and now NATO members) Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia border Russia.
Since 2016, NATO has deployed four battalion-size battle groups to the Baltic states and Poland as part of what a NATO statement calls "the biggest reinforcement of Alliance collective defense in a generation."