Vipers, Typhoons and Sukhois! Air Forces Deploy Along Russian Frontier as Ukraine Crisis Escalates
NATO and Russia adding more jet fighters to aerial standoff
Eastern Europe is becoming an aerial armed camp as Russia and NATO both deploy more and more combat-ready warplanes. The jet-fighter stand-off is spillover from Russia’s continuing annexation of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula—and Moscow’s implied threat to the rest of Ukraine and to other states in the region.
The U.S., French and British air forces have deployed or will soon deploy contingents of fighter planes to Lithuania and Poland, both of which are NATO members. Meanwhile Russia has sent fighters to Belarus.
“We’re in this with you, together,” U.S. Vice Pres. Joe Biden said on March 19 after a meeting with the presidents of Lithuania and Latvia—the latter also a NATO member. Biden said that America is “absolutely committed” to defending its allies.
Moscow matched Washington’s rhetoric in a U.N. meeting the same day. A Russian diplomat said his government was “concerned” about the rights and safety of Russian-speakers in Estonia, a NATO state.
The “concern” claim is an unambiguous threat. Moscow began annexing Crimea in late February after insisting Ukraine had mistreated the country’s Russophones. Previously, Russia had invaded Georgia and Moldova on the same pretense.
With Russian troops bloodlessly evicting Ukrainian forces in Crimea, NATO responded by reinforcing its aerial patrols along the Russian border. The U.S. Air Force sent an extra six F-15C Eagle fighters to join four F-15s already deployed in Lithuania, which lacks high-performance fighters of its own. The American air arm also expanded a previously-planned air exercise with Poland involving U.S. and Polish F-16C Vipers and other warplanes.
The U.S. Air Forces in Europe, the Pentagon’s main air command for the continent, possesses around 200 warplanes, largely based in the U.K., Germany and Italy. Since the Ukraine crisis began, 10 percent of those planes have shifted east toward Russia.
Russia met the American fighters with fighters of its own. Six Russian air force Su-27 Flanker fighters with live air-to-air missiles staged in Belarus at the request of the country’s president.
Meanwhile, the U.K. and France have both offered to expand NATO’s Baltic air patrols with British Typhoon and, presumably, French Rafale fighters. Finland, which is not a NATO member but loosely aligns with the treaty organization, is increasing the pace of its own aerial patrols near Russia. “We’re adjusting our own readiness,” Finnish air force Col. Ossi Sivén said.
Despite the deployments, no one expects air-to-air battles over Europe any time soon. But the aerial moves are indicative of increasing tension across the continent as a result of Russia’s land-grab in Ukraine.