A showdown in the skies between a Russian spy plane and two British Royal Air Force fighter jets on Wednesday marked just the latest in a year-long flurry of confrontations between Vladimir Putin’s Air Force and NATO fighters, and continued to elevate tensions between the western allies and Moscow.
The incident happened around lunchtime May 11, over the Gulf of Finland — an inlet of the Baltic Sea with shores in Finland, Russia, and the former Soviet republic of Estonia, which split from Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Estonia then joined the NATO alliance in 2004. But after Putin ordered Crimea annexed into Russia last year, and with Russia backing an apparent proxy war against the government of neighboring Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, Estonia fears that it could be Putin’s next takeover target.
NATO has based a policing mission in the Baltic region, to monitor Russian military activity in the area, and stop Russian aircraft from infiltrating NATO airspace.
The Russian spy plane intercepted Wednesday had not yet strayed into Estonia’s space, but was flying too close for the comfort of the NATO mission there. Two RAF Typhoon fighters were scrambled to meet the spy plane and ward it away from Estonia’s aerial borders.
The Russian spy plane was an Ilyushin IL-20 Coot, a Soviet era turbo-prop plane, as seen in the above photo. Back in November, NATO fighter jets in the Baltic caught two IL-20 surveillance planes in one week.
“Air interceptions like this underline the vital importance of the U.K.’s contribution to the Baltic air policing mission,” British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said, after the spy plane incident. “The UK’s role in the protection of NATO airspace and the involvement of our personnel in the Estonian exercise currently taking place demonstrate our commitment to NATO’s collective defense and the value of our armed forces’ expertise in improving the military capabilities of our allies.”
While fighter jets from Britain and other NATO nations have patrolled the Baltic region since 2004 when not only Estonia but Latvia and Lithuania — also former Soviet republics — signed on with NATO.
But in response the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the NATO policing mission was strengthened last year — and Russia appeared to step up its own military presence in the Baltic, as well.
NATO accuses Russia of deliberate provocation with its increased number of unauthorized flights of jets and surveillance aircraft over the Baltic since April of 2014. Because the Russian aircraft usually fly without announcing a flight plan and with radar transponders off, NATO says that the flights threaten the safety of civilian airliners.