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A Russian Federation Air Force SU-27 Flanker fighter lands on Aug. 8, 2011.
A Russian Federation Air Force SU-27 Flanker fighter lands on Aug. 8, 2011. (Thomas J. Doscher/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON – A Russian fighter jet intercepted a U.S. Navy spy plane this week in neutral airspace over the Black Sea, flying within 20 feet of the American aircraft, a Pentagon spokesman said Friday.

Despite the unusually close encounter Tuesday, the commander of the P-8A Poseidon that was buzzed described the incident as “safe and professional,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Davis said he could not elaborate on what factors contributed to the commander’s assessment.

“Distance is one of several variables that our commanding officers consider when they define what is safe and professional,” he said. “They also look at speed, altitude, rate of closure, visibility and other factors that impact whether an event is characterized as safe or unprofessional or a combination of those.”

The intercept occurred in international airspace. But the Russian government said the P-8A, which is a maritime reconnaissance plane, was nearing Russian airspace when it scrambled a Su-27 Flanker fighter to identify the American plane.

The Russian Defense Ministry, in a statement, described the Russian maneuver as a “greeting.”

“After approaching a plane at a safe distance, the Russian pilot visually identified the flying object as a U.S. surveillance plane P-8A Poseidon,” the Russian statement read. The statement also added the U.S. plane changed its course after the interaction.

The Pentagon did not confirm the direction change.

American and Russian planes and ships regularly interact in and over the Black Sea. Davis said the vast majority are deemed safe and professional, however the Russians have been known to carry out provocative actions in the region.

In February, Russian fighter and surveillance aircraft buzzed the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter in the Black Sea three times without turning on their radio transponders, which emit identification signals. The incidents were deemed unsafe and unprofessional. In September, a Russian jet flew within 10 feet of a P-8A in another unsafe and unprofessional interaction over the Black Sea.

The two nations aircraft have recently interacted closer to the United States, as well.

Last month, U.S. stealth F-22 Raptor fighters were scrambled to intercept Russian bombers and fighters in international airspace within 200 miles of the Alaskan coast. That interaction was also deemed safe and professional. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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