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Fighter jet is seen flying over Poland
NATO jet flying over Poland as part of a NATO air shielding exerciseImage: Radoslaw Jozwiak/AFP/Getty Images

How NATO sees the recent Russian jet incidents

Priyanka Shankar
March 15, 2023

While fallout between the US and Russia over the downing of a US drone continues, NATO is taking a cautious stance over the incidents involving Russian aircraft.


After an American drone was forced down by a Russian jet in the Black Sea earlier this week, British and German fighter jets policing Estonian airspace as part of a NATO mission also intercepted a Russian aircraft as it approached the Baltic nation on Tuesday.

While there is no direct link between incidents involving the two Russian jets this week, they have magnified the yearlong tensions between the West and the Kremlin over the war in Ukraine.

The US has said that the Russian fighter jet's action in striking the propeller of the American surveillance drone is a "brazen violation of international law." The Russian ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, responded rather tartly that there was no reason for US military aircraft and warships to be near Russia's borders.

Meanwhile, the incident near Estonia's airspace in which the two Western jets — one from the RAF's 140 Expeditionary Air Wing and the other from the German 71 Tactical Air Wing Richthofen —  intercepted the Russian plane has been described as "a routine NATO mission" by the British Royal Air Force (RAF).

The RAF and German Air Force have been conducting joint NATO air policing in Estonia as a part of the military alliance's strategy to fortify its eastern flank amid heightened tensions with Russia. 

"NATO continues to form the bedrock of our collective security. This joint UK and German deployment in the Baltics clearly demonstrates our collective resolve whilst demonstrating our combined strength," James Heappey, the UK's minister of state for the armed forces, said in a statement.

How has NATO reacted to the two incidents?

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who is set to take part in a virtual Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting hosted by the US secretary of defense on March 15, has not yet commented on the Russian jet incidents.

Bruno Lete, a senior fellow focusing on security and defense at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels, however told DW that NATO will remain cautious.

"When it comes to the incident with the American drone, it will remain as a dialogue between the US and Russia, and NATO will not get involved, since it is a case between a US drone and Russian jet. Even though this was an act of aggression by the Russian jet, this is gray-zone aggression for NATO and it won't trigger Article 5 — a NATO collective defense treaty where an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all NATO allies," he said.

"The incident near Estonian airspace is a violation of the sovereign airspace of NATO member states, since the alliance is in charge of air policing this region. But NATO will remain cautious and pursue a strategy that avoids direct conflict or war with Russia," he added.

Will the incidents push NATO to ramp up its air defense?

Over the past few years, Russian jets have regularly been intercepted by NATO jets, causing the alliance to bolster its air policing along its frontiers with Russia.

"Russia is constantly testing NATO and its abilities on its eastern flank, in the Atlantic Ocean and in the high north in the Arctic because  Russia is keen to understand NATO's military capacity. This is the reason for so many Russian incursions," Lete said.

Speaking at a press conference to mark Estonia's Independence Day on February 24 this year, NATO's Stoltenberg expressed a similar view and recalled that since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, NATO has significantly reinforced its presence from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea.

But according to Lete, while the recent US-Russia jet incident will remain an issue just between the two countries, it will push NATO to ramp up its presence in the Black Sea even further. 

"NATO is very much aware that its presence in the Black Sea — which lies between Europe and Asia and is bordered by Russia and Ukraine, among other countries —  is underdeveloped, compared to its presence in the Baltic region. While the alliance is trying to fortify its presence, the NATO Black Sea strategy still needs bigger reinforcement. We cannot allow the Black Sea to become a Russian lake," he said.

A ship is seen delivering humanitarian aid acrosss the Black Sea
The Black Sea has become an even more strategic body of water since Russia's war in Ukraine began Image: Str/NurPhoto/picture alliance

In November, NATO's Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana voiced a similar view, highlighting that for more than two decades the Black Sea region had been a launch pad for Russia’s aggressive actions.

“This is why we reaffirm the strategic importance of the Black Sea region in NATO's new Strategic Concept that our leaders endorsed in Madrid at the summit last June," he said ahead of a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Romania last year.

Ever since the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, joined NATO in 2004, the military alliance has been protecting their skies, and when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO air policing over the Baltics, which border Russia, was enhanced.

Drone incident likely due to miscalculation: Defense expert

"Russia has regularly tried to test NATO's readiness and response capacity especially over the Baltics as we saw over Estonia this week. So through NATO's Baltic Air policing, there are jet fighters from different NATO members in the Baltics and elswehere in NATO territory, and each time Russia violates the alliance's airspace, NATO is well-prepared to react," Lete said. 

Edited by: Timothy Jones

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