Intel: Russian jets intercept US Navy plane over eastern Mediterranean

al-monitor A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter takes off from the Russian military base of Khmeimim southeast of the city of Latakia, Syria, Sept. 26, 2019.  Photo by MAXIME POPOV/AFP via Getty Images.

May 27, 2020

Two Russian fighter aircraft intercepted a US Navy patrol plane over the eastern Mediterranean on Tuesday, the US 6th Fleet said.

The Navy released video of the interception, which it called “unsafe and unprofessional.” In it, two Russia Su-35 fighters can be seen close to the wings on both sides of a US Navy P-8A maritime patrol aircraft flying parallel to distant coastline. One of the Su-35s appears to be armed with an air-to-air missile.

The United States said the 64-minute intercept took place over international waters in the same area as two prior interceptions in April. In one of those incidents, Russia said it scrambled aircraft from western Syria’s Khmeimim airbase to escort US aircraft away from Russian military facilities.

Why it matters: The United States has accused Russia of numerous unsafe intercepts in recent years over and around Syria. Aerial encounters are to be expected as the two powers both remain militarily involved in the country’s conflict. Tuesday’s interception came the same day as the United States released aerial surveillance imagery showing Russian fighter aircraft recently delivered to Libya. The United States said at least 14 MiG-29s and Su-24s were flown from Russia to Syria, where they were repainted to conceal Russian markings, before being sent on to Tobruk in eastern Libya in support of Khalifa Hifter’s campaign against Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli.

“We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya — every step of the way,” US Africa Command commander Gen. Stephen Townsend said Tuesday, accusing Russia of trying to “tip the scales in its favor in Libya.” Townsend likened Russia’s intervention in Libya to Moscow's effort in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

What’s next: Russia’s introduction of fourth-generation fighter aircraft in Libya has US military officials ratcheting up the rhetoric on the Kremlin’s military presence in the Mediterranean. On Tuesday, the commander of US air forces in Europe and Africa said that if Russia obtains permanent coastal bases in Libya, its “next logical step” is to introduce long-range air defense systems, which the United States considers a threat to NATO’s access to its southern flank.

Know more: See Cengiz Candar's piece on how Turkish military commitments to Libya’s Tripoli-based government have escalated the conflict in the eastern Mediterranean.

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