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British and German fighter jets scrambled to intercept two Russian aircraft flying close to Estonia in a joint NATO mission on Tuesday – hours after a Kremlin warplane downed a US drone over the Black Sea – amid fears of an escalation in the region.

The RAF and German Typhoon jets were reacting to a Russian air-to-air refuelling aircraft after it failed to communicate with Estonian air traffic control in the Baltic Sea, and as it approached NATO airspace.

The Russian Il-78 Midas plane was intercepted as it was flying between St Petersburg and Kaliningrad. The NATO jets were later redirected to also intercept a Russian An-148 airliner that was also passing close to Estonian air space. 

It was the first joint NATO air policing scramble carried out by the two countries, and comes amid a period of heightened tension in the region due to Vladimir Putin‘s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and his threats to Kyiv’s western allies.

Russia today warned it will ‘consider any action with US weaponry as openly hostile’ after the incident in international airspace yesterday.

British and German Typhoon fighter jets (pictured in a photo released by Germany's air force) scrambled to intercept a Russian aircraft flying close to Estonia in a joint NATO mission on Tuesday, hours after a Kremlin warplane downed a US drone over the Black Sea

British and German Typhoon fighter jets (pictured in a photo released by Germany’s air force) scrambled to intercept a Russian aircraft flying close to Estonia in a joint NATO mission on Tuesday, hours after a Kremlin warplane downed a US drone over the Black Sea

The Russian Il-78 Midas plane (pictured in an image released by Germany's air force on Tuesday) was flying between St Petersburg and Kaliningrad

The Russian Il-78 Midas plane (pictured in an image released by Germany’s air force on Tuesday) was flying between St Petersburg and Kaliningrad

US officials said the MQ-9 surveillance drone was downed following an ‘unsafe and unprofessional intercept’ in international airspace by two Russian Su-27 fighter jets.

Pentagon officials said the Russian fighters harassed the drone by dumping fuel on it and flying in front of it, before one Su-27 clipped the propeller of the $32 million drone, forcing it down over the Black Sea in a total loss of the unmanned aircraft. 

The US State Department summoned Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the US, to voice protest after the Russian fighter jet collided with and destroyed the drone in the early hours of the morning.

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The two incidents came as the the UK is preparing to take over from Germany to lead the NATO mission in Estonia, one of the three Baltic states (all NATO members) that also borders Russia. 

Putin has repeatedly claimed that his invasion of Ukraine, ordered on February 24 last year, was a reaction to the expansion of the NATO military alliance on Russia`s borders – and to Ukraine`s own ambitions of joining the group.

Kyiv and the West says Putin`s attack on Ukraine is a crime of aggression fuelled by his imperialistic ambitions to capture former Soviet territory and eradicate a sovereign country – in breach of international law. 

The expansion of NATO in recent decades, they say, is in itself a reaction to mounting fears of Russian aggression.

As the war rages some 500 miles to the south, British pilots are currently conducting joint air policing missions in Estonia alongside the German air force for the first time.

The Russian Midas was flying from Russia’s second city of St Petersburg, that sits close to the borders of Finland and Estonia, and sits on the Baltic Sea.

It was travelling to Kaliningrad, a Russian semi-exclave also on the Baltic Sea that is the most western point of Russia.

After escorting the Midas refuelling plane, the two NATO jets were redirected to intercept the An-148 airliner, that was also coming close to Estonia’s air space.

The Ministry of Defence stressed the ‘routine’ nature of the mission, but it comes amid tensions between the West and Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.

British armed forces minister James Heappey said: ‘Nato continues to form the bedrock of our collective security.

‘This joint UK and German deployment in the Baltics clearly demonstrates our collective resolve to challenge any potential threat to Nato’s borders, whilst demonstrating our combined strength.’

A Typhoon pilot from the RAF’s IX(Bomber) Squadron, who was not named by the Ministry of Defence, said: ‘We were scrambled to intercept an aircraft that was approaching Estonian airspace. We identified and monitored it as it transited close to Nato airspace.

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‘Any aircraft that are not communicating with Air Traffic Control or on a recognised flight plan will be intercepted by us to ensure we know who they are and maintain flight safety for all airspace users.

‘As a fighter pilot this was a routine business, even though I was flying alongside a German colleague. It is clear that all of our training and hard work paid off as we seamlessly operated together.’

The jets involved in the mission are part of the RAF’s 140 Expeditionary Air Wing and the German 71 Tactical Air Wing Richthofen.

Commander of the RAF’s 140 Expeditionary Air Wing, Wing Commander Scott Maccoll, said it had been ‘great’ to see UK and German forces ‘operate as one team’.

The NATO jets also redirected a Russian An-148 airliner (pictured in photos released by the German air foce) that was also passing close to Estonian air space

The NATO jets also redirected a Russian An-148 airliner (pictured in photos released by the German air foce) that was also passing close to Estonian air space 

The UK is preparing to take over from Germany to lead the NATO mission in Estonia, one of the three Baltic states (all NATO members) and borders Russia. Pictured: British troops take part in drills in February 2022 in Estonia, weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine

The UK is preparing to take over from Germany to lead the NATO mission in Estonia, one of the three Baltic states (all NATO members) and borders Russia. Pictured: British troops take part in drills in February 2022 in Estonia, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Details of the mission came amid a fresh reminder of the depth of tensions between Russia and the US, after a Russian fighter jet struck the propeller of a US surveillance drone over the Black Sea.

The US called it a ‘brazen violation of international law’ and caused the American forces to bring down the unmanned aerial vehicle.

Moscow said the US drone maneuvered sharply and crashed into water following an encounter with Russian fighter jets scrambled to intercept it near Crimea, but insisted its warplanes did not fire their weapons or hit the drone.

The incident appeared to mark the first time since the height of the Cold War that a US aircraft was brought down after an encounter with a Russian warplane.

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‘This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,’ said Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder in a press briefing.

The incident happened in international airspace, but not far from the battles raging on the front lines of the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed the US drone was flying toward its airspace with its transponder turned off, and the Russian fighters were dispatched to investigate.

‘Russian fighters did not use airborne weapons and did not come into contact with the American drone,’ the ministry said in a statement.

‘Due to sharp maneuvering, the American drone went into uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and collided with the water surface,’ the statement added.

Russian ambassador Antonov has been summoned to discuss the incident, said US spokesman Ned Price, calling it a ‘brazen violation of international law’.

Antonov accused the US of an ‘act of provocation’ and said the Russian fighter did not down the Reaper drone.

Yesterday, the US State Department summoned Anatoly Antonov, Russia's ambassador to the US, to voice protest after the Russian fighter jet collided with and destroyed an American Reaper drone (pictured) in the early hours of Tuesday morning

Yesterday, the US State Department summoned Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the US, to voice protest after the Russian fighter jet collided with and destroyed an American Reaper drone (pictured) in the early hours of Tuesday morning

Kirby, the White House spokesman, said that the State Department ‘will be speaking directly with their Russian counterparts, and expressing our concerns over this unsafe and unprofessional intercept.’ 

‘If the message is that they want to deter or dissuade us from flying, operating in international airspace over the Black Sea, then that message will fail,’ said Kirby.

‘We don’t need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace. There’s no requirement to do that nor do we do it,’ he added.

While the United States is not sailing warships in the Black Sea, it has routinely been flying surveillance aircraft in and around the area.

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