NATO Jets Intercept Russian Plane Amid U.S. Drone Tensions

  • British and German fighter jets on Tuesday intercepted a Russian aircraft flying close to NATO airspace.
  • This was the same day the U.S. accused Russian fighter jets of downing an American drone over the Black Sea.
  • The interception close to Estonian airspace is the first time British and German air forces acted jointly as part of their NATO air policing mission in the region.

British and German fighter jets intercepted an unresponsive Russian aircraft flying close to NATO airspace on Tuesday, the same day that the United States accused Russian fighter jets of intentionally downing an American drone over the Black Sea.

The BBC reported that two Typhoon fighter aircraft—one from the British 140 Expeditionary Air Wing and the other from the German 71 Tactical Air Wing Richthofen—were scrambling to intercept a Russian Il-78 Midas refueling plane that was flying between St. Petersburg and the Kaliningrad exclave.

Russian aircraft routinely fly along the edges of NATO airspace, as do NATO aircraft around Russian frontiers. Such flights may be intended for reconnaissance, testing reaction times, or as part of routine transits between bases. The Russian refueling aircraft failed to communicate with air traffic control in Estonia, according to the BBC.

The interception was the first time that British and German air forces acted jointly as part of their NATO air policing mission in the region.

Above, a Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter jet takes off from RAF Coningsby air base, near Lincoln, England on December 9, 2022. British and German fighter jets intercepted a Russian aircraft flying close to NATO airspace on March 14, 2023.

“Following a successful visual identification and escort, the pair of Typhoons were re-tasked to intercept an AN148 airliner, also passing Estonian airspace,” the British Defense Ministry said in a statement. “The interception is however a routine NATO mission for the Typhoons which provides reassurance that the U.K. and Germany together with other NATO allies stand with their Estonian ally at this time of tension.”

There is nothing to indicate that Tuesday’s interception near Estonian air space is linked to the incident over the Black Sea, in which a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone was destroyed after a reported collision with intercepting Russian Su-27 fighter jets.

NATO allies take turns leading four-month stints of the Baltic policing mission from air bases in Lithuania and Estonia. The alliance has been conducting regional air policing duties since Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined the bloc in 2004, with a second mission established after Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.

“A high proportion of Russian Federation Air Force flight activity is due to the geographical situation of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad; Russian Federation Air Force aircraft regularly fly from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad and vice versa,” according to a statement on NATO’s Allied Air Force Command website.

“They often approach or fly near NATO airspace without using transponders, communicating with Air Traffic Control or having filed a flight plan.”

Mark Voyger, a former special adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs to then-commander of U.S. Army Europe General Ben Hodges, told Newsweek that Russian “probing” activities are common around NATO’s northern European airspace, including close to Estonia which he said Moscow considers “in absolute terms hostile to its own interests.”

Voyger, now a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Analysis and professor at the American University of Kyiv, said Moscow may be looking to “broaden the operational space” by confronting Ukraine’s foreign backers in other areas, including the Baltic region, the Black Sea and Moldova.

“Everywhere they fail on the battlefield, in tactical sense, they try to compensate as much as possible elsewhere,” Voyger explained, noting Russia’s slow and as-yet underwhelming spring offensive, which is grinding on with heavy casualties on the southern and eastern fronts.

Newsweek reached out to the Estonian and Russian defense ministries by email for comment.

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