WASHINGTON — U.S. European Command released dramatic photos on Thursday that show the moment a Russian Su-27 fighter jet flew within five feet of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the Baltic Sea — an encounter U.S. officials assessed to be “unsafe.”
The intercept took place Monday while the U.S. aircraft was “flying in international airspace,” according to Meghan Henderson, a spokeswoman for European Command.
The Russian plane was armed and flew “erratically,” a U.S. official said, noting the maneuvers were deemed unsafe due in part to the proximity of the aircraft.
“Due to the high rate of closure speed and poor control of the (Russian) aircraft during the intercept, this interaction was determined to be unsafe,” she said.
The newly released photos show the Russian fighter jet flying so close to the wing of the U.S. aircraft that the Russian pilot can be seen clearly in the cockpit.
The images also confirm the Russian jet was armed.
Russia disputed claims its aircraft was at fault during the encounter and said it intercepted two U.S. reconnaissance aircraft as they “approached the Russian state border.”
“When being accompanied, the RC-135 plane made an attempt at approaching the Russian fighter jet making a provocative turn towards it,” the ministry said via TASS.
Then, 10 minutes later, a second US RC-135 entered the zone and was also intercepted by the Russian Su-27 jet, the ministry said.
There have been more than 30 interactions between Russian and U.S. aircraft and ships near the Baltic Sea since the beginning of June, a U.S. official said.
The vast majority of these encounters have been safe and professional, the official added — a point that adds to the significance of Monday’s incident.
“The vast majority of interactions we have, intercepts that occur when we fly and that are intercepted by the Russians are safe. This is an exception, not the norm, but we were again operating in international airspace and did nothing to provoke,” said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis.