Moscow is stonewalling Lithuania’s ongoing investigation into the September 15 crash of a Russian Air Force Su-27 fighter jet deep inside Lithuania (see EDM, September 20). Russian military and political authorities ignore or evade Lithuania’s questions about Russian radar data on the plane’s flight path, the reasons why the plane was fully armed, or the nature of the slightly radioactive metal components found in the plane’s wreckage. For its part, Lithuania has demonstrated its willingness to cooperate by allowing a delegation of Russian air force officers to participate as observers in all phases of the Lithuanian investigation and to sit in during the pilot’s questioning.
With Russia uncooperative and Lithuania poorly equipped to find the answers on its own, the Lithuanian investigation is advancing slowly. Meanwhile, Moscow demands a prompt end to the investigation and the return of the pilot, Maj. Valery Trofimov, and of the plane’s wreckage to Russia.
The incident has demonstrated that NATO’s air policing operation for the Baltic states needs to be upgraded. NATO radars and planes — four German F-4 Phantom jets in the current rotation, based at Zokniai in Lithuania — were slow to detect and failed to intercept the intruding plane. Russia’s Air Force Commander-in-Chief, General Vladimir Mikhailov, reacted with glee: “Air defense forces and assets in Lithuania simply turned out to be good for nothing. The vaunted NATO German pilots were on duty that day. Were they drinking beer, I wonder? For more than 20 minutes this big aircraft was flying over the territory of Lithuania, but it was spotted only when it crashed,” Mikhailov told a news conference at air force headquarters in Torzhok (RIA-Novosti, Interfax, September 26).
The Lithuanians found the plane’s flight recorder on September 17 and instantly asked NATO allies for assistance in decoding it. NATO, however, has agreed that Ukraine would perform the decoding. The official reason — that Ukraine could provide the equipment and specialists faster than NATO member countries could — would seem to require some further elucidation. A Ukrainian team of four specialists arrived in Lithuania on September 24, seven days after Vilnius had turned to NATO allies for decoding assistance.
Officially, NATO was first heard from on September 22, seven days after the crash. Spokesman James Appathurai expressed the alliance’s “satisfaction with the Lithuanian authorities’ cooperation with the Russian partners” and its hope that the “investigation could resolve this incident and be completed as soon as possible.” The statement added a reminder that NATO and Russia are strategic partners and conducting a political dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council (BNS, September 22). Four days later, NATO was again officially heard from — this time together with the European Union — when the ambassadors of NATO and EU countries accredited in Vilnius paid a visit to the investigative commission in Lithuania’s Defense Ministry.
On September 22, before leaving for a visit abroad, President Valdas Adamkus publicly advised the investigators “not to hurry with conclusions before assembling the facts, and only then consider how the facts might reflect on international relations.” That same day, Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas reaffirmed that all versions, including that of a possible intelligence operation or a deliberate test of NATO air defenses, would be investigated. On the following day, however, Kirkilas declared that the plane’s intrusion was almost certainly an accident and that the pilot would soon be released and returned to Russia. Lithuania’s Prosecutor-General, Mindaugas Duda, responded that the minister’s statement might have been prompted by political reasons, but that the legal investigation must continue its course. On September 26, Kirkilas qualified his statement by noting that the version of a deliberate incursion (that went awry) into Lithuania was not ruled out.
The Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Ivanov, continue asking Lithuania promptly to return the pilot and the plane. Pickets outside the Lithuanian embassy in Moscow on September 23 supported that demand under the slogan, “No pilot, no gas.”
(ELTA, BNS, Lietuvos Rytas, Interfax, September 20-26; see EDM, September 20)