Russian Fighter Jet Comes Within 20 Feet of U.S. Navy Aircraft, Deems Approach 'Safe'

A Russian Il-78 (top) refuels a Su-30 during an aerobatics show at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in central China's Hunan province March 18, 2006. A Russian jet intercepted a U.S. Navy aircraft above the Black Sea, coming within 20 feet of its American counterpart. China Daily/Reuters

Russia’s air force scrambled to intercept a U.S. aircraft above the Black Sea, sending a fighter jet that came within 20 feet of its American counterpart.

Moscow claimed that the U.S. jet was “approaching the state border of the Russian Federation” when forces in southern Russia deployed an Su-30 fighter jet to follow it.

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U.S. Naval Forces Europe spokeswoman Pamela Kunze first reported the near approach on Thursday, though the incident itself took place on Tuesday. The U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon was conducting routine operations in international airspace, Kunze told NBC.

Despite the close encounter by what the Navy identified as a Russian Su-27, the P-8A's mission commander deemed the journey a safe one. Kunze said other factors in addition to the proximity of the aircraft such as speed and altitude also play a part in how a commander judges an approach.

In a statement to state news agency RIA Novosti, the Russian Ministry of Defense gave more details about the incident, describing the distance between the aircraft as “safe.”

“The Russian fighter carried out a ‘welcoming’ maneuver for the American pilots, after which the American recon airplane changed its flight course, in the direction away from Russia’s borders. The Su-30 fighter jet safely returned to the airfield where it is based,” the statement said.

Russian and U.S. forces have had several tense encounters since an increase in political hostility between the two countries that began with a disagreement over Ukraine’s ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Later, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, adopted a sharper tone on NATO and increased its forays into international airspace.

The U.S. military likewise frequently flies in international airspace and its navy sails in international waters. Recently, U.S. military air monitors spotted an increase in Russian flights near Alaska though none constituted an incursion into U.S. airspace.