Nato intercepts 19 Russian military planes in space of two days
With relations at lowest point since end of the cold war, fighter pilots respond to 19 bombers, fighters and tankers close to European airspace
Nato's chief said the alliance must "keep strong" after its jets intercepted a large number of Russian aircraft flying close to European airspace over two days this week, in an "unusual" series of incidents that brought Russian bombers as far afield as Portugal.
The aircraft - at least 19 in all - offered reminders of Russian air power at a time when relations between the West and Russia are at their lowest point since the cold war. Russian military aircraft have significantly increased their activity around Europe since the conflict in Ukraine began this year, with Nato scrambling to intercept aircraft more than 100 times in 2014. But a Nato official said the latest incidents were this year's most provocative.
Over the North, Black and Baltic seas and the Atlantic Ocean, Russian bombers, fighter jets and tanker aircraft were detected flying in international airspace, Nato said. There were no incursions in national airspace, a violation of sovereignty that would have greatly amplified the seriousness of the four incidents, three of which took place on Wednesday.
"We're raising it as an unusual level of activity," said Nato's Lieutenant Colonel Jay Janzen.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said the transatlantic alliance remained vigilant.
"We are not in a cold war situation, but Russia has undermined a lot of trust," he said. "We must keep Nato strong."
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was not "acutely worried" about the Russian sorties.
"It's concerning because it's moving in the wrong direction," said one US defence official. "It's not helping to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. It's not helping to improve relations between Nato and Russia."
In at least one of the four incidents, the aircraft had switched off their transponders and had not filed flight plans with civilian air traffic controllers, meaning that civilian air traffic control could not track them, potentially creating a risk for civilian planes.
That incident took place around 3am in western Europe on Wednesday, when four Tu-95 long-range strategic nuclear bombers and four Il-78 tanker aircraft flew over the Norwegian Sea. Norwegian F-16 fighter jets scrambled to intercept them.
Six of the planes returned to Russia, but two of the bombers skirted the Norwegian coast, flew past Britain - sending Typhoon fighter jets to scramble in response - and finally looped west of Spain and Portugal, attracting Portuguese F-16s. Then the two bombers appeared to return to Russia, Janzen said. There was no immediate reaction from the Russian government.
Fighter jets from Norway, Britain, Portugal, Turkey, Germany, Denmark, Finland and Sweden were involved in responding to the Russian aircraft, Janzen said.
Finland and Sweden are not members of Nato and have long refrained from joining the alliance, formed as a bulwark against the former Soviet Union.
The incidents appear to have set European militaries on edge this week. British fighter jets were scrambled on Wednesday to bring a civilian Antonov cargo jet into a London airport; it stopped responding to radio calls from controllers while over the British capital.
Additional reporting by Agence France Presse