NATO, Russia Set to Urge Each Other to Curb ‘Unsafe’ Baltic Jet Maneuvers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -
Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) aerobatic team fly in formation during the International Army Games 2016, in Dubrovichi outside Ryazan, Russia. (Reuters/Maxim Shemetov/File)

NATO envoys and Russia were set to urge each other at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday to fly warplanes more safely over the Baltic Sea after the latest intercepts that both sides say involved dangerous pilot maneuvers.

At the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels, NATO ambassadors will press Moscow for Russian pilots to file flight plans, respond to air traffic control or identify themselves with cockpit transmitters, known as transponders.

“There have been a series of unsafe intercepts,” a NATO official said of Russian pilots. “Risk reduction remains a concern.”

The Kremlin says all Russian flights over the Baltic are conducted in strict accordance with international law.

Wrangling in the Baltic Sea between Moscow and the Western alliance is intensifying. In June, Russia scrambled a jet to intercept a nuclear-capable U.S. B-52 bomber it said was flying over the Baltic, in an incident that had echoes of the Cold War.

NATO said last month it tracked three Russian aircraft over the sea, including two jets which it said did not respond to air traffic control or requests to identify themselves.

Russia says the incident involved a NATO F-16 fighter jet buzzing a plane carrying Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as it flew over the Baltic and that the F-16 was seen off by a Russian Sukhoi-27 military jet.

The NATO-Russia Council, the forum bringing together NATO ambassadors and Russia’s top diplomat to the U.S.-led alliance, is seen as a means to prevent tensions escalating, even when joint exercises and peacekeeping have been suspended.

At the meeting, Russia’s envoy to the alliance, Alexander Grushko, is expected to discuss the issue, as well as the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014.

NATO accuses Moscow of direct support of the separatists and of supplying weapons and troops. Russia denies any involvement and says the conflict is more akin to a civil war.

The meeting of the Council is only the fifth since the crisis in Ukraine halted regular talks in 2014 and is also set to discuss planned military exercises in the coming months.

Russia and Belarus aim to hold joint war games in September that some North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies believe could number more than 100,000 troops and involve nuclear weapons training, the biggest such exercise since 2013.