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Nato and Russia in high-risk cat-and-mouse game from the air

PARIS – The loss of a US drone in the Black Sea after an alleged collision with a Russian warplane has exposed the high-risk game of cat-and-mouse in European skies between NATO and Russian planes.

The US on Tuesday accused Russia of bringing down one of its Reaper surveillance drones over the Black Sea by colliding with a Russian Sukhoi-27 fighter jet.

Russia denied intentionally shooting down the drone. But it was the first such incident between Moscow and Washington since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

“This event is unusual and will remain extraordinary. It remains too isolated to highlight a clear change in attitude,” said a French expert, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“On the other hand, it’s a return to the situation at the end of the Cold War, when Western air equipment was occasionally destroyed,” he added.

The expert pointed to frequent Soviet fire against American stratospheric balloons in the 1980s.

Since the invasion of Ukraine began, NATO member states have been sending planes across the Black Sea every day, careful not to violate Russia’s sovereign airspace, which stretches up to 12 nautical miles offshore.

Partly aimed at gathering intelligence, these missions also send a message to Russia that NATO is on the alert while the conflict rages on its eastern flank.

“NATO monitors everything that happens in the Black Sea, nothing happens there without our knowledge,” Italian Colonel Michele Morelli told AFP in December.

“We are making sure the Russians are aware of our presence at the borders just as we are aware of them,” said Morelli, who oversees a detachment of four Eurofighter jets supporting Romania.

– Risk for civil commercial aircraft –

Moscow has not hesitated to send “messages” in recent years, sending its military planes near the sovereign airspace of European countries.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO’s eastern flank members, including the three Baltic states, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, have benefited from increased NATO so-called “air policing”.

In 2022, NATO air forces across Europe attempted around 570 times to intercept Russian military aircraft approaching alliance airspace, according to NATO.

Most intercepts took place over the Baltic rather than the Black Sea.

“The vast majority of air encounters were safe and professional,” said a NATO official, who asked not to be named.

“In some cases, Russian military aircraft conducted risky maneuvers in the vicinity of unarmed Allied reconnaissance flights in international airspace,” the official added.

During these alert flights, known as the “Alpha Scramble,” aircraft take off on the minute by order of NATO Command Headquarters.

They take place when an aircraft is sighted that has not revealed its plan and identity in the usual manner.

“Russian military aircraft often do not transmit a transponder code indicating their position and altitude, file a flight plan, or communicate with air traffic controllers, posing a potential risk to civilian airliners,” NATO said.

– ‘Frequent Transits’ –

The Russian plane is then intercepted by NATO fighter jets, which establish visual contact and escort it if necessary.

Most of the time, Russian incursions remain highly calibrated, even if they carry risks.

But the invasion of Ukraine, which has led to a significant concentration of forces in regional airspace, has increased the risk of incidents that could trigger a major escalation.

A few months before Tuesday’s incident, Britain had accused the Russian Air Force of firing a missile near a British Royal Air Force plane patrolling the Black Sea in late September.

The NATO official added that Russian military planes had also unsafely overflown NATO ships on a routine patrol in the Baltic Sea in November.

“It is extremely rare for an aircraft to fly over national territory,” said a French air force officer, who asked not to be named.

“What often happens is transits over international waters outside the territory but in the airspace where Baltic air traffic controllers operate to ensure the safety of flights.”

Source: Crypto News Deutsch

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