The White House said President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin chatted on the phone today — but Obama did not bring up Russia’s too-close-for-comfort aerial actions near a U.S. ship and a reconnaissance plane.
U.S. European Command said Saturday that a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea was barrel-rolled by a Russian Su-27 on Thursday.
“The unsafe and unprofessional actions of a single pilot have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries,” Danny Hernandez, a spokesman for U.S. European Command, told CNN, noting that the plane “performed erratic and aggressive maneuvers” within 50 feet of the U.S. RC-135.
A week ago, two Russian SU-24 jets made “numerous close-range and low altitude passes” that led the U.S. ship to suspend flight operations until the Russian planes were gone. Last Tuesday, a Russian KA-27 Helix helicopter “conducted circles at low altitude around the ship, seven in total, at approximately 5 p.m. local.”
“The helicopter passes were also deemed unsafe and unprofessional by the ship’s commanding officer. About 40 minutes following the interaction with the Russian helicopter, two Russian SU-24 jets 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,” U.S. European Command said in a statement.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama had a conversation with Putin today about Ukraine and abiding by the Minsk talks.
“The United States continues to believe and President Obama continues to make a forceful case that Russia needs to abide by their commitments, and by doing so they can begin to relieve some of the isolation they have sustained as a result interfering in the sovereign activities of their neighbors in Ukraine,” Earnest said.
“The telephone conversation did spend a lot of time focused on the situation in Ukraine. There also was a rather intense discussion, as you’d expect, around the situation in Syria,” he added.
There wasn’t, however, any discussion about Russia’s actions in the Baltic.
“I asked this specific question and that did not come up in the call between the two presidents,” Earnest confirmed.
“As I mentioned yesterday, those kinds of activities are destabilizing and a source of some concern, but they’re not particularly unusual. And there is an already well-established channel for expressing our concerns about those kinds of incidents from the U.S. military attache in Moscow to his Russian military counterpart. Those concerns were raised at that level and were not escalated beyond that,” he added.
Asked if a complaint had been lodged in the latest incident with the recon plane, Earnest called it “a good illustration of just how these kinds of incidents, while provocative and concerning, are not particularly unusual.”
“And I do not know at this point whether or not specific concerns have been raised about the incident that you just referenced.”
Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN Español on Thursday that Russia’s behavior “is reckless, it is provocative, it is dangerous.”
“And under the rules of engagement that could have been a shoot-down,” Kerry said, adding that “people need to understand that this is serious business and the United States is not going to be intimidated on the high seas.”
“We are communicating to the Russians how dangerous this is and our hope is that this will never be repeated.”
Earnest said today that Kerry’s comments underscored “certainly why we encourage the Russians to not engage in those kinds of activities, abiding by generally accepted international norms, particularly when operating in either international waters or in international airspace.”
“But again, this is — we have ample opportunities to express our concerns about these kinds of provocative actions to the Russians and it did not necessitate a presidential level conversation.”
The Kremlin simply said of the call: “At the USA’s initiative, Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with President of the United States of America Barack Obama.”
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said “the information spread by foreign media concerning a supposedly dangerous approach of the Russian aircraft Su-27 to the American reconnaissance aircraft RC-135… is not true.”
Konashenkov said the U.S. aircraft was spotted “heading to the Russian state border at high speed” but “changed its course to an opposite one and flew back from the Russian border” when it saw the Russian plane.