British and German fighter jets scrambled to intercept two Russian aircraft flying close to Estonia in a joint NATO mission on Tuesday – hours after a Kremlin warplane downed a US drone over the Black Sea – amid fears of an escalation in the region.
The RAF and German Typhoon jets were reacting to a Russian air-to-air refuelling aircraft after it failed to communicate with Estonian air traffic control in the Baltic Sea, and as it approached NATO airspace.
The Russian Il-78 Midas plane was intercepted as it was flying between St Petersburg and Kaliningrad. The NATO jets were later redirected to intercept a Russian Antonov 148 military transport aircraft that was also passing close to Estonian air space, the RAF said in a release on Wednesday.
It was the first joint NATO air policing scramble carried out by the two countries, and comes amid a period of heightened tension in the region due to Vladimir Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and his threats to Kyiv’s western allies.
Russia today warned it will ‘consider any action with US weaponry as openly hostile’ after the incident involving the drone in international airspace yesterday, which also came as Danish investigators said they had found a ‘suspicious object’ beneath the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, parts of which were mysteriously destroyed last year.
British and German Typhoon fighter jets scrambled to intercept a Russian aircraft flying close to Estonia in a joint NATO mission on Tuesday, hours after a US drone was downed over the Black Sea after coming into contact with two Russian fighter jets. Pictured: A Typhoon is seen alongside the Russian plane in a photograph released by the RAF on Wednesday
The RAF and German Typhoon jets (pictured before taking off in a photograph released by the German air force) were reacting to a Russian air-to-air refuelling aircraft after it failed to communicate with Estonian air traffic control in the Baltic Sea
US officials said the MQ-9 surveillance drone was downed following an ‘unsafe and unprofessional intercept’ in international airspace by two Russian Su-27 fighter jets.
Pentagon officials said the Russian fighters harassed the drone by dumping fuel on it and flying in front of it, before one Su-27 clipped the propeller of the $32 million drone, forcing it down over the Black Sea in a total loss of the unmanned aircraft.
The US State Department summoned Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the US, in protest over the incident in the early hours of the morning.
It came as the the UK was preparing to take over from Germany to lead the NATO mission in Estonia, a NATO member which borders Russia.
Putin has repeatedly claimed that his invasion of Ukraine, ordered on February 24 last year, was a reaction to the expansion of the NATO military alliance on Russia’s borders – and to Ukraine’s own ambitions of joining the group.
Kyiv and the West says Putin’s attack on Ukraine is a crime of aggression fuelled by his imperialistic ambitions to capture former Soviet territory and eradicate a sovereign country – in breach of international law.
The expansion of NATO in recent decades, they say, is in itself a reaction to mounting fears of Russian aggression. Since the invasion of Ukraine, both Finland and Sweden have announced their own intentions of joining the alliance – ending decades of non-alignment.
As the war rages some 500 miles to the south, British pilots are currently conducting joint air policing missions in Estonia alongside the German air force for the first time.
The Russian Midas was flying from Russia’s second city of St Petersburg, that sits close to the borders of Finland and Estonia, and sits on the Baltic Sea.
It was travelling to Kaliningrad, a Russian semi-exclave also on the Baltic Sea that is the most western point of Russia.
After escorting the Midas refuelling plane, the two NATO jets were redirected to intercept the An-148 airliner, that was also coming close to Estonia’s air space.
The Ministry of Defence stressed the ‘routine’ nature of the mission, but it comes amid tensions between the West and Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.
British armed forces minister James Heappey said: ‘Nato continues to form the bedrock of our collective security.
‘This joint UK and German deployment in the Baltics clearly demonstrates our collective resolve to challenge any potential threat to Nato’s borders, whilst demonstrating our combined strength.’
A Typhoon pilot from the RAF’s IX(Bomber) Squadron, who was not named by the Ministry of Defence, said: ‘We were scrambled to intercept an aircraft that was approaching Estonian airspace. We identified and monitored it as it transited close to Nato airspace.
‘Any aircraft that are not communicating with Air Traffic Control or on a recognised flight plan will be intercepted by us to ensure we know who they are and maintain flight safety for all airspace users.
‘As a fighter pilot this was a routine business, even though I was flying alongside a German colleague. It is clear that all of our training and hard work paid off as we seamlessly operated together.’
The jets involved in the mission are part of the RAF’s 140 Expeditionary Air Wing and the German 71 Tactical Air Wing Richthofen.
Commander of the RAF’s 140 Expeditionary Air Wing, Wing Commander Scott Maccoll, said it had been ‘great’ to see UK and German forces ‘operate as one team’.
The Russian Il-78 Midas plane was intercepted as it was flying between St Petersburg and Kaliningrad. The NATO jets were later redirected to also intercept a Russian Russian Antonov 148 military transport aircraft (pictured) that was also passing close to Estonian air space, the RAF said on Wednesday
The Russian Il-78 Midas plane (pictured in an image released by Germany’s air force on Tuesday) was flying between St Petersburg and Kaliningrad
The NATO jets also redirected a Russian An-148 airliner (pictured in photos released by the German air force) that was also passing close to Estonian air space
The UK is preparing to take over from Germany to lead the NATO mission in Estonia. Pictured: British troops take part in drills in February 2022 in Estonia, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Details of the mission came amid a fresh reminder of the depth of tensions between Russia and the US, after a Russian fighter jet struck the propeller of a US surveillance drone over the Black Sea.
The US called it a ‘brazen violation of international law’ and caused the American forces to bring down the unmanned aerial vehicle.
Moscow said the US drone manoeuvered sharply and crashed into water following an encounter with Russian fighter jets scrambled to intercept it near Crimea, but insisted its warplanes did not fire their weapons or hit the drone.
It is believed to be the first time since the height of the Cold War that a US aircraft was brought down after an encounter with a Russian warplane.
‘This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,’ said Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder in a press briefing.
The incident happened in international airspace, but not far from the battles raging on the front lines of the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed the US drone was flying toward its airspace with its transponder turned off, and the Russian fighters were dispatched to investigate.
‘Russian fighters did not use airborne weapons and did not come into contact with the American drone,’ the ministry said in a statement.
‘Due to sharp maneuvering, the American drone went into uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and collided with the water surface,’ the statement added.
Russian ambassador Antonov has been summoned to discuss the incident, said US spokesman Ned Price, calling it a ‘brazen violation of international law’.
Antonov accused the US of an ‘act of provocation’ and said the Russian fighter did not down the Reaper drone.
Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about US intelligence flights close to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed.
The Kremlin has charged that by providing weapons to Ukraine and sharing intelligence information with Kyiv, the US and its allies have effectively become engaged in the conflict.
Yesterday, the US State Department summoned Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the US, after Russian fighter jets forced the downing of an American Reaper drone (pictured) over the Black Sea in the early hours of Tuesday morning
Russian Sukhoi SU-27
Type: Fighter jet
Top speed: 1,550mph
Wing span: 48ft
Range: 2,193 miles
Armament: 30mm cannon air-to-air/land missiles, rockets and bombs
US MQ-9 Reaper
Type: Surveillance drone
Remote crew: Two
Top speed: 300mph
Wing span: 66ft
Range: 1,150 miles
Armament: AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II, and GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions
White House spokesman John Kirby said that the State Department ‘will be speaking directly with their Russian counterparts, and expressing our concerns over this unsafe and unprofessional intercept’.
‘If the message is that they want to deter or dissuade us from flying, operating in international airspace over the Black Sea, then that message will fail,’ said Mr Kirby.
‘We don’t need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace. There’s no requirement to do that nor do we do it,’ he added.
While the United States is not sailing warships in the Black Sea, it has routinely been flying surveillance aircraft in the area.
As the news of the downed drone broke, there were calls in Moscow for the so far unnamed Su-27 pilot to be given a top state honour and a cash reward.
Russian Lt-Gen Andrey Gurulev led praise for the pilot and called for more action to neutralise drones flying near Crimea, which are seen as helping Ukraine to hit targets.
‘Patriots are rejoicing over the downing of the drone,’ he said. ‘My friends, I can assure you that everyone is rejoicing.
‘Everyone is rejoicing because this is probably one of the key moments in our special [military] operation. The armed forces of the Russian Federation have shown that the country’s patience is not infinite.
‘And this so-called incident is probably the key one…because those US intelligence assets and their satellites are giving information to the Ukrainian army today.’
He urged illegal action against AWACS, reconnaissance and communication satellites, including Starlinks.
Gurulev – a prominent pro-Putin TV propagandist – said: ‘So there is something to do to put all these reconnaissance brigades in their place. But no-one doubts the heroism of the pilot. No doubt he will receive a worthy state award.’
One poll on a pro-war Telegram channel said the pilot should be made a rouble millionaire, with a cash prize of £10,900.
PolitNavigator Telegram channel said the Russian navy were ‘busy picking up the wreckage’, which US forces were also seeking to recover.
‘Some of the fragments were fished out of the water,’ said the report. There are suggestions that other debris from the drone had sunk.
Meanwhile, a ‘suspicious object’ was discovered beneath the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Black Sea, Danish investigators said on Wednesday.
Putin said a ship rented by Russian energy company Gazprom found an antenna-like object about 19 miles from where the Nord Stream pipelines exploded last year.
He claimed that the object could be an explosive device as he warned that a new explosion could occur on the pipelines.
‘Experts believe that this could be an antenna to receive a signal to detonate an explosive device, which might be put under the pipeline system,’ Putin said.
Denmark today acknowledged a ‘device’ had been found, but asserted it does not present a current risk. ‘The assessment from our authorities is that there is no immediate security risk and thus no danger to human life or shipping,’ Danish foreign minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said.