A Russian spy plane briefly entered NATO airspace Tuesday, the first reported incident of a Russian military aircraft encroaching on territory patrolled by the alliance since the Ukraine crisis began.
The spy plane entered Estonian airspace near the island of Saaremaa “for a period of less than one minute” and flew less than half a mile into the country’s territory after Danish and Portuguese fighter jets steered it away from Denmark, NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Jay Janzen said.
NATO officials identified the spy plane as a Russian Ilyushin-20, which was designed to gather intelligence, Lt. Col. Janzen said. Officials tracked the spy plane from its launching point from the Russian seaport city of Kaliningrad and watched it “kind of doing a circuit around the Baltic” before the aircraft headed into Estonian airspace, he said.
NATO increased its policing efforts in the Baltic Sea region this year in response to concern among NATO allies like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine.
Lt. Col. Janzen said the incursion, while brief and relatively minor, was the first since Russia’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine this year strained relations between Moscow and the alliance.
“Since the Ukraine crisis started, there haven’t been any incursions into the areas that NATO patrols as part of its air policing mission. This was the first one,” he said.
Estonian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mari-Liis Valter said Wednesday that Estonia considers the violation serious and “demands an explanation” for why the spy plane entered its airspace, according to The Associated Press.
The Foreign Ministry summoned Russia’s ambassador Wednesday “and presented him with a diplomatic note of protest,” said Estonian Embassy spokeswoman Maria Belovas in Washington.
The Russian Defense Ministry has denied entering Estonian airspace, according to The Wall Street Journal. Ministry officials told local news agencies that the spy plane departed Kaliningrad on a routine training mission in international airspace, the newspaper reported.