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Tensions Simmer in Su-27 Crash

Lithuania said Friday that the crash of a Russian fighter jet in the NATO member country was almost certainly an accident.

However, in a sign that the heated diplomatic dispute between the two countries was far from over, it sharply criticized the state of the Russian military, saying similar incidents posed security threats to the whole Baltic region.

"Based on the latest information, the version that the accident was a deliberate violation of the Lithuanian airspace can almost certainly be discarded," Lithuanian Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said.

He warned that similar accidents "clearly threatened the security of Lithuania, the European Union and NATO."

Kirkilas stressed that he was speaking strictly in his political capacity.

Russian officials had no immediate reaction to Kirkilas' remarks, which came eight days after the crash.

The Lithuanian Prosecutor General's Office, which is investigating the Sept. 15 accident along with two other commissions, has yet to present its final conclusions and has not ruled out the possibility that the Su-27 jet deliberately violated the country's airspace.

Decoding work on the jet's flight recorder, carried out together with Ukrainian specialists, was expected to be finished by Monday.

A group of seven Air Force planes was flying over the neutral waters of the Baltic Sea from the St. Petersburg area to the Kaliningrad exclave when the Su-27, armed with four air-to-air missiles, tailed off and strayed into Lithuania's airspace. Shortly after, it crashed near the village of Ploksciai, about 190 kilometers northwest of Vilnius.

The pilot, Valery Troyanov, 36, ejected safely. He has been charged with violating Lithuanian airspace and is being held in detention in Vilnius during the investigation.

The incident sparked a standoff with Russia when Vilnius rejected Moscow's demands to hand over the pilot and the flight recorder immediately after the crash -- demands that Lithuania saw as impinging on its sovereignty. Russia, in return, sharply criticized Lithuania's decision to carry out an independent investigation into the accident, accusing it of failing to adopt a good-neighbor approach.

Russian military planes have frequently been accused of violating the airspace of neighboring countries, including Georgia and Finland. Russia has always maintained that no violations occurred.

Lithuanian media suggested that the breach of its airspace this month could have been a provocation meant to test the country's air defense systems. Russia, however, insists that the jet's departure from its agreed route was caused by a navigation system glitch and has offered to pay 3,000 euros ($3,610) to cover damages.

Russian and Lithuanian analysts said that even though the incident was unlikely to damage ties between NATO and Russia, it served as a stark reminder that the balance of power in the Baltic region remains very delicate.

"There is but one conclusion: Russia poses a danger. I think that's the logic that Lithuania will push," said Ivan Safranchuk, a defense analyst with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information's Moscow office.

The Lithuanian authorities, who have accused Russia of fueling an information war, denied that they were pursuing a political agenda and said that the main aim of the investigation was to prevent similar violations in the future.

"This is not the first time that Russian military jets have violated Lithuanian airspace. The Russian side simply does not pay enough attention to safety regulations," Renatas Norkus, an undersecretary at the Lithuanian Defense Ministry, said by telephone from Vilnius on Friday. "Given good relations between Russia and NATO, politically too, we see a problem when armed Russian military jets violate our airspace.

"If their navigation systems break down, if their ground control is chaotic or nonexistent, if an aircraft runs short of fuel within minutes after swerving from its course -- such a situation ... worries us a lot," Kirkilas said.

The number of violations has dropped since Lithuania's admission to NATO in March 2004, Lithuanian defense sources said.

This year, however, NATO F-4 fighters policing Lithuanian territory have been scrambled at least eight times from their base near the town of Siauliai after receiving the alert that Russian military planes had violated national airspace, Lithuanian media reported, citing local authorities.

"There's little room in the Baltic sky, especially over the Kaliningrad region, and it's easy to go into foreign airspace," said Alexander Khramchikhin, a specialist with the Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. "As a rule, [the incursions] last for one or two minutes."

Lithuanian media reported that the Su-27 spent over 20 minutes circling in the country's airspace before going down.

The four NATO planes that patrol Lithuania's airspace follow commands from a center in Germany. On Sept. 15, the fighters responded eight minutes after being alerted -- less than the 15 minutes required by NATO protocol -- but the Su-27 had already crashed by the time they arrived.

Safranchuk said the accident underscored the weakness of the air defenses of the Baltic states.

NATO had provided only token protection for the new member, insisting that Russia was not a threat, but now the attitude could change, Safranchuk said. "It's not ruled out that NATO will increase its contingent there," he said.

However, NATO experts said the reaction time of the NATO planes was of no significance. "That's all a matter of updating the state of alertness, and our state of alertness in NATO, including Lithuania, is extremely low because Russia is not considered an actual threat," said Ole Kvaernoe, director of the Institute for Strategy at the Danish Royal Defense College.

Lithuanian media reported that local radar systems recorded the violation but holes in their coverage left them unable to follow the plane's full course. Those reports, together with NATO's sluggish and low-key official reaction, threaten to undermine Lithuanian trust in the alliance, said Aleksandras Matonis, an independent political observer in Vilnius. "This incident has significantly undermined NATO's image in Lithuania," he said.

The first official reaction from NATO headquarters arrived only a week after the incident, when it welcomed Lithuania's investigation.

The alliance's preliminary conclusion is that the crash was a pure accident, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said Friday. "It seems to be increasingly clear that it was an accident," he said by telephone from Brussels.

(The Moscow Times 26.ix.05)

 
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