By Barbara Starr and Oren Liebermann, CNN
A US Navy aircraft had an “extremely close” encounter with multiple Russian military jets over international waters in the Mediterranean this weekend, according to multiple US officials directly familiar with the US military reports of the incident.
The sources would not detail precisely how close the Russian aircraft came to the US Navy P-8 maritime patrol aircraft or where precisely the encounter occurred, but the maneuvers by the Russians were described as “unsafe and unprofessional.”
“We have made our concerns known to Russian officials through diplomatic channels,” said Captain Mike Kafka, the Pentagon’s Director of Defense Press Operations.
The initial reporting indicates there was a subsequent additional encounter after that between US and Russian jets, which were Sukhoi SU-35 fighters, according to a defense official.
Several of the officials indicated there is video of the incident. But the Biden administration has yet to publicly acknowledge any of the details amid rising tensions with the Russia as it masses troops on the border with Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US had not observed any “meaningful pullback” of Russian forces near Ukraine, despite Russian state media reporting that troops would be leaving Crimea.
The Russian ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, told Die Welt, a German newspaper, that there would be no attack on Ukraine “in the coming weeks, nor months.”
But the US and NATO remain broadly skeptical of Russian statements about de-escalation because of the overwhelming forces positioned so close to Ukraine and the Kremlin ambiguity about their fundamental purpose.
The encounters between US and Russian aircraft over the Mediterranean Sea, though hundreds of miles away from Ukraine, only add to the sensitivity of the situation.
It is not unusual for Russian aircraft to approach US military aircraft but the majority of the interactions are considered safe and professional by the US.
“While no one was hurt, interactions such as these could result in miscalculations and mistakes that lead to more dangerous outcomes,” Kafka said.
CNN also has reported that US military aircraft escorted a Russian cargo plane and fighters across an air exclusion zone in eastern Syria on Tuesday when the Russians failed to give appropriate advance notification of their flights, according to other US officials.
US officials continue to say these close and unexpected encounters risk a miscalculation that could lead to a military incident.
“The US will continue to operate safely, professionally and consistent with international law in international waters and airspace,” Kafka added. “We expect Russia to do the same.”
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