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NATO Jet Approaches Russian Defense Minister's Aircraft


On Monday, a Russian jet flew within 5 feet of an American military plane that was flying over the Baltic Sea. And on Tuesday, a NATO jet returned the favor, buzzing close to a plane that was carrying the Russian defense minister. The close encounters are part of a larger military buildup in northeastern Europe. NATO and Russia have both increased the amount of their troops in the region.

With us to talk about this is Jorge Benitez. He's the senior fellow for transatlantic security at the Atlantic Council. Welcome to the show.

JORGE BENITEZ: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: So for listeners who are not familiar with the Baltics, I'm wondering if you could explain what's going on. I mean why are U.S. jets there in the first place?

BENITEZ: The tensions in northern Europe and the Baltic Sea region have really increased since the Russian invasion in 2014 of Ukraine and their annexation of the Crimea into their own territory. Since then, there have been a great increase in Russian provocations. They've moved a lot more troops into the area. In the last year, they announced that they were going to move in two more divisions into this region.

And they've also been flying their aircraft and their ships in a much more provocative manner. In the last few months, we've heard the very famous case of Russian jets buzzing the U.S. warship the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea region. There have been numerous provocations where the Russian aircraft are flying without their transponders on, without any identification. And this is a very small sea, and it's a congested area.

MCEVERS: Before this buildup, how common was this, you know, for planes to buzz aircraft or other craft like this?

BENITEZ: Since the end of the Cold War, this has been very uncommon. This has been a very peaceful region of Europe. There haven't been these kind of incidents on any real degree. This is really directly tied to the events that happened in 2014.

MCEVERS: In Ukraine. So have the events in recent days - I mean are they considered an escalation here? I mean is this a worrying trend?

BENITEZ: This is a very serious escalation both because of the quantity of these incidents but also the quality and the type and severity of these incidents. So on the one hand, we've seen in the last month over 30 intercepts of Russian aircraft that have been flying without their identification, without their transponders, that have been flying in provocative ways or too close to NATO airspace. And at the same time, these Russian provocations like the most recent one on Monday was of a Russian jet flying just 5 feet away from an American reconnaissance plane. So these things are pretty dangerous. That's not much room for error with just 5 feet away.

MCEVERS: Yeah, I mean it sounds like the Cold War again in its own way. I mean where do we go from here?

BENITEZ: Well, that is the problem. The Russians are acting very much in an adversarial fashion. In their security documents and in some of their comments, they've been describing NATO as an adversary. NATO is pursuing what's called a dual-track response. It's trying to do both deterrence and defense but also dialogue and diplomacy.

So NATO is trying to talk to the Russians and trying to get them to calm things down, to agree to things, to do things so that everybody flies according to the international safety rules and stops ignoring them. But Russians have been very resistant to do that. And each year, when we keep expecting that things will calm down, the Russians keep ramping up the escalation and doing even more provocative things.

MCEVERS: And what's the worst case scenario?

BENITEZ: Well, there's different ways to look at it. A lot of people are concerned that there might be some accidental confrontation, a crisis, that some of these planes might get too close. Recently we saw in the last week or so the Russians actually apologized because one of the other jets did what's called a barrel roll over one of our air-refueling planes. That's a very, very dangerous procedure. You know, a gust of wind or anything, and we could have an accident. And that will lead to an international incident and a direct confrontation. So those are some of the things we want to avoid. But it takes the Russians being willing to behave in a much more responsible fashion.

MCEVERS: What do they gain from this?

BENITEZ: Well, it is interesting that these events are taking place - really escalated in the last few days after the incident in Syria on Sunday where the U.S. shot down a Syrian jet fighter plane working for the Assad regime that was getting too close and too provocative to the coalition forces that were fighting ISIS in Syria.

The Russians really took a very stern and provocative response to that. They said they were going to start targeting U.S. and allied aircraft in Syria that flew within their air zones. And then it's just the very next day that we had, on Monday, this provocation by this Russian jet in the Baltic Sea region. So even though these things are geographically separate, these are all taking place in areas where the Russians have deployed military forces and are trying to do provocations against the West.

MCEVERS: So there's no, you know, evidence that these are linked, but there's a clear sense that they could be.

BENITEZ: Well, the timing certainly looks much more than coincidental.

MCEVERS: Jorge Benitez, senior fellow for transatlantic security at the Atlantic Council, thank you very much.

BENITEZ: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE ONE AND MF DOOM SONG, "TRAP DOOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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