World War 3 may not have arrived just yet, but Russian jets raised the frightening stakes in their ongoing duel with NATO fighters in the skies over the Baltic region on Tuesday, blasting past the speed of sound and leading NATO Typhoon jets on the first supersonic chase of the post-Cold War era.
Potentially deadly confrontations between Russian military jets flying dangerously close to NATO airspace, only to be intercepted and run off by NATO fighters, have become almost routine over the past year, with record numbers of aerial showdowns since the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea in early 2014.
Not since the days of the Soviet Union has the Russian air force taken as many chances of starting a war in the skies — a war that could quickly erupt into World War 3. Defense experts say that not since the Soviet Union collapsed have the Russians displayed the level of aggression that they’ve shown in the past 12 months.
On Tuesday, a squadron of four Russian jets, including a pair of Su-27 “Flanker” fighters and two Tu-22M “Backfire” bombers, believed to be flying from the Russian mainland to the military outpost of Kalingrad, buzzed Latvian airspace over the Baltic Sea.
The lead jet, a Tu-22M3 bomber similar to the Tu-22M jets pictured above, flew at a speed above the sound barrier, forcing Italian NATO Typhoons to scramble and chase down the plane while flying at supersonic speeds themselves.
None of the Russian jets alerted civil aviation authorities to their flight plans and they all kept their transponders off, making them much more difficult to detect on ground radar. Their secretive tactics cause the Russian jets to pose a significant threat to civilian air traffic, experts say.
Latvia has been a NATO member since 2004, but was part of the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1991. The fact that the Baltic nation switched sides to NATO is believed to gall Russian President Vladimir Putin, who himself was a longtime KGB intelligence officer in the Soviet system.
Putin has made no secret of the fact that he considers NATO’s inclusion of Latvia, along with fellow former Soviet states Estonia and Lithuania, an affront to Russia. Defense experts fear that Putin may attempt military action against Latvia to attempt to bring the country back into the Russian fold — in similar fashion to Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year.
About one-third of the Latvian population are ethnic Russians and half of Latvians speak Russian. Thousands of former Soviet military and intelligence officials — people similar to Putin himself — are believed to reside in Latvia.
Defense analysts say that the Russian jets were most likely acting in a deliberately provocative fashion — a fashion that with one wrong move could start a shootout in the skies that may blossom into full-blown World War 3.