- Reuters and Jeremy Bender
Two Russian warplanes with no visible weaponry flew simulated attack passes near a U.S. guided missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea on Tuesday, a U.S. official said, describing it as one of the most aggressive interactions in recent memory.
The repeated flights by the Sukhoi SU-24 warplanes, which also flew near the ship a day earlier, were so close they created wake in the water, with 11 passes, the official said.
US Navy Photo
A Russian KA-27 Helix helicopter also made seven passes around the USS Donald Cook, taking pictures. The nearest Russian territory was about 70 nautical miles away in its enclave of Kaliningrad, which sits between Lithuania and Poland.
"They tried to raise them (the Russian aircraft) on the radio but they did not answer," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding the U.S. ship was in international waters.
The incident came as NATO plans its biggest build-up in eastern Europe since the Cold War to counter what the alliance, and in particular the Baltic states and Poland, consider to be a more aggressive Russia.
The three Baltic states, which joined both NATO and the European Union in 2004, have asked NATO for a permanent presence of battalion-sized deployments of allied troops in each of their territories. A NATO battalion typically consists of 300 to 800 troops.
Moscow denies any intention to attack the Baltic states.
However, With current force deployments, Russia could steamroll NATO forces in the Baltic states. In the most dire scenario for NATO, Moscow would be able to conquer all the way to Estonia's capital Tallinn in 36 hours, according to a report from the think tank RAND Corp.
As current NATO force structures stand in Europe, RAND found that the military organization "cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members." In the best-case scenarios for NATO, Russia was prevented from reaching the outskirts of the Latvian or Estonian capitals for 60 hours.
The USS Donald Cook had just wrapped up a port visit in the Polish city of Gdynia on April 11 and then proceeded out to sea with a Polish helicopter on board.
The first incident took place on April 11, when two SU-24 jets flew about 20 passes near the Donald Cook, coming within 1,000 yards (meters) of the ship, at about 100 feet (30 meters) in altitude.
That was followed by even closer passes by the SU-24s the following day and the passes by the Russian helicopter.
The U.S. defense official said the commanding officer of the Donald Cook believed that Tuesday's incident was "unsafe and unprofessional," but cautioned that a formal U.S. military review of the matter was underway.
On January 25, a Russian fighter jet also conducted an "unsafe and unprofessional" interception of a US reconnaissance aircraft over the Black Sea, according to US European Command. In that instance, the Russian Su-27 flew to within 20 feet of the US RC-135 plane.
Such unsafe flying is prohibited by a Cold War era agreement that bars "simulated attacks against aircraft or ships, performing aerobatics over ships, or dropping hazardous objects near them."
The White House is aware of Russian planes flying dangerously close to a U.S. guided missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea on Tuesday and continues to be concerned about such behavior, a spokesman said on Wednesday.
"The White House is aware of the incident," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters at a daily briefing. "This incident ... is entirely inconsistent with the professional norms of militaries operating in proximity to each other in international water and international airspace."
(Reuters reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by James Dalgleish)