Russia's War Game Spills Into NATO Airspace, Causing Diplomatic Spat

Russian paratroopers jump from a IL-76 transport plane during a joint Serbian-Russian military training exercise "Slavic Brotherhood" in the town of Kovin, near Belgrade, Serbia November 7, 2016. Marko Djurica/Reuters

Two Russian military jets entered NATO ally Lithuania's airspace over the weekend, a violation which prompted the Lithuanian government to demand an "immediate explanation" from the Russian ambassador. Moscow has accused its neighbor of playing politics over the event.

Russia is currently engaged in joint war games with another Lithuanian neighbor, Belarus, and according to the NATO ally's armed forces over the course of the last week, allied jets scrambled to intercept Russian military jets over the Baltic eight times. These did not result in airspace violations, unlike the foray on Sunday.

"The incident took place in the evening on 16 September, when two Russian military aircraft Il-76 entered Lithuania's airspace and stayed there for up to 2 minutes," the Lithuania's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in a statement Monday. "The aircraft were flying from Russia's mainland to the Kaliningrad region."

"Lithuania's Foreign Ministry called on Russia to take all necessary measures to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future," the statement from Vilnius added.

According to the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense, the violation took place around 11:00 p.m. and the two aircraft had made it several nautical miles deep into the airspace of Lithuania, on their way to Kaliningrad. NATO did not scramble jets because the Russian warplanes had noted their destination in a flight plan. Kaliningrad has no land corridor with the rest of Russia and Moscow has argued its daily air traffic to the region are a necessity. However the increased air force presence during a time of tense relations and high Russian military reinforcement has repeatedly unnerved Baltic allies who have argued it makes it all the easier for Russia to mask any potential assault.

Russia's Ministry of Defense issued a statement, accusing Lithuania of making statements that are "politicized and incompatible with reality," the Interfax news agency reports. Moscow confirmed the airspace violation but said the flight route had to be changed at the last minute due to a weather emergency.

"During the course of the flight over the Baltic Sea, a thunderstorm 20 kilometers (12 miles) in width and 60 kilometers in length (37 miles) was spotted, directly threatening the safety of the airplanes and their crew," the statement said.

The Russian ministry said the pilots obtained permission from Vilnius command's air control and "immediately returned to the main route" afterward.

The airspace over the Baltic region has grown crowded and tense as diplomatic relations between the ex-Soviet states on the ground and Russia endure a deeply troubled stretch. Since Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, another ex-Soviet state, in 2014, a handful of Russia's other neighbors have expressed fear they may fall prey to a similar Russian maneuver too.

Russian air force and naval capabilities in both the Baltic and Black Sea have increased in the meantime, as have NATO intercepts of unannounced or suspicious Russian flights above the Baltic Sea.