Russian Jets Face Off With Italian Eurofighters Over Baltic — Two Showdowns Last Week

Russian jets started 2015 the same way they started and finished 2014 — with a relentless campaign of harassment against NATO forces stationed in the Baltic region. On two separate occasions in just the past week, Italian Eurofighter Typhoon jets have been forced into the skies to confront the Russians as they threatened to penetrate NATO air over the Baltics.

The Italian jets took over NATO policing duties from their Portuguese counterparts on January 1, stationed at the NATO air base in Šiauliai, Lithuania. It took a few weeks, but on January 30, the Italian F-2000 jets — as the Eurofighter Typhoons similar to those pictured above are known in the Italian Air Force — scrambled to cut off a Russian IL-78 Midas tanker jet, of the same model as the jet in the following photo.

The Ilyushin-78 is a four-engine tanker used for midair refueling of bombers in long-range missions — such as the pair of Russian Tu-95 "Bear" bombers that were intercepted by British Royal Air Force jets over the English Channel on January 28.

Those purpose of the 19-hour mission flown by those two bombers — one of which carried a nuclear warhead on a guided missile — remains unknown.

The Il-78 tanker over the Baltic was intercepted by the Italian Air Force jets two days after the bizarre U.K. scare, so the two confrontations are not believed to be connected.

But on Tuesday, just four days later, the Russians were testing the NATO air defenses again, as an Il-76 Candid military cargo plane flew near to the NATO territory in the Baltic, again forcing the Italian pilots into their Typhoon jets and into the sky to face down the Russian and drive it away.

The Il-76 is similar to the Il-78, and looks much like the Candid transport plane in the following photo.

In response to what NATO sees as troubling Russian aggression in the region, the alliance has formed a "spearhead" force of 5,000 troops in the Baltics, which according to NATO leaders can deploy to any location within a lightning-fast 48 hour period.

The move comes in response to Russia's apparent ability to move troops along the border between Russia and Ukraine with blinding speed.

Leadership of the new NATO force will rotate among five countries: Spain, Britain, Italy, France, and Poland.

The Italians also now lead the NATO Baltic Air Policing force, a unit that also includes Canadian, German, and Dutch fighters which, throughout 2014, scrambled dozens of times to intercept Russian jets.