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Russian attack jets buzz US warship in riskiest encounter for years

A Russian jet came within 30ft of a US destroyer conducting exercises in the Baltic Sea in what the US navy described as a “simulated attack” – one of the closest and riskiest encounters between the two countries’ armed forces in recent years.

The US navy released photos and videos showing Russian SU-24 fighter jets flying low over the sea and “buzzing” the USS Donald Cook – a destroyer of the Arleigh Burke class – which carries guided missiles and which had just made a call at the Polish port of Gdynia.

According to the US European Command (Eucom) in Stuttgart, there were a number of such close encounters on Monday and Tuesday, involving both Russian fighter jets and helicopters, while the Donald Cook was in international waters in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Poland. Those waters are also close to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

Lt Col David Westover, a Eucom spokesman, said that in the closest pass, on Monday, a Russian SU-24 came within 30ft (9 metres) of the Donald Cook, at an altitude of 100ft, as the US navy was practising helicopter landings on the ship’s deck, and an allied helicopter was on the deck refuelling. The drills were stopped because of the danger presented by the Russian overflights, he said. Other reports said that helicopter involved in the aborted exercise had been Polish.

The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said the behaviour was “entirely inconsistent with the professional norms of militaries operating in proximity to each other in international waters and international airspace”.

There was no direct response from Moscow, but the pro-government Sputnik news service described the flypast as a “minor incident” which had got the Pentagon “up in arms”.

The incident appears to be the closest so far of a series of military encounters between Russian and US forces since tensions intensified dramatically with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent covert military intervention on the side of separatists in eastern Ukraine. Military experts have warned that such risky behaviour could easily lead to a miscalculation by a pilot or sailor leading to an accident and repercussions that spiral out of control.

The European Leadership Network (ELN), a defence thinktank, issued a report in March calling for Moscow and Washington to reach an agreement setting rules for military encounters to lessen the risk of uncontrolled escalation.

Responding to the latest incident, the ELN director, Ian Kearns, said: “These incidents are happening too often. They are dangerous and irresponsible. Any one of them could escalate into something more dangerous still.”

He said the Nato Russia Council, a cooperative body set up after the cold war but which has recently fallen into abeyance, should make management of such incidents a priority at its next session on 20 April.

Eucom’s account of Monday’s incident said the “Donald Cook was conducting deck landing drills with an allied military helicopter when two Russian SU-24 jets made numerous, close-range and low altitude passes at approximately 3pm local time. One of the passes, which occurred while the allied helicopter was refuelling on the deck of Donald Cook, was deemed unsafe by the ship’s commanding officer. As a safety precaution, flight operations were suspended until the SU-24s departed the area.” Other reports said the helicopter was Polish.

On Tuesday, according to Eucom, a Russian KA-27 Helix helicopter flew seven low altitude rings around the US warship, followed 40 minutes later by two SU-24s which “made numerous close-range and low altitude passes, 11 in total”.

“The Russian aircraft flew in a simulated attack profile and failed to respond to repeated safety advisories in both English and Russian,” the Eucom statement said. “We have deep concerns about the unsafe and unprofessional Russian flight manoeuvres. These actions have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries, and could result in a miscalculation or accident that could cause serious injury or death.”