Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 174

At 15:20 local time in good flying weather on September 15, a Russian air force

Su-27 fighter jet crashed into a field in western Lithuania. The plane was part of a

convoy of seven fighter jets (Mig-29 and Su-27) and an A-50 radar plane en route

over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea from Russia’s Leningrad region to the

Chernyakhovsk air base in Kaliningrad region. Earlier in the day, the convoy had

crossed Estonia’s flight information area with signals switched off, thus

jeopardizing flight safety there.

The plane strayed almost 200 kilometers from the prescribed route, which passed

approximately 20 kilometers off Lithuania’s Baltic shore (just over the 12-mile

limit of territorial waters). The crash site is located approximately 170 kilometers

inland. The pilot, Major Valery Troyanov, ejected safely and is being held for

questioning by the Lithuanian Prosecutor-General’s Office in for the duration of

investigations into the incident.

For two days, Russia’s ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs were claiming — as

did the pilot initially — that the plane was unarmed. On September 17, however, the

Lithuanians found that the plane was armed as if for a wartime operation. They

recovered the flight recorder (black box) as well as two air-to-air missiles and the

machine gun with its ammunition box from the plane’s wreckage. They are looking for

the other two missiles that the Russian side now admits the plane was carrying and

might possibly have dropped elsewhere before crashing. Most of the plane’s fuselage

is buried 4 to 5 meters deep in the ground and must be recovered manually for fear

of explosives inside.

The pilot and Moscow blame the incident on a malfunction of the plane’s navigation

equipment, which caused the pilot to lose orientation and eventually to crash land

when his fuel ran out. The plane’s identification friend-or-foe (IFF) system

self-destroyed while in flight, as it is programmed to do in the event of a failure

of navigation equipment. Further, according to this version, the Russian pilot could

not contact Lithuanian civilian air control or NATO’s radar in Lithuania because he

does not speak English.

Questioning this version, experts note that the plane, if disoriented, was not

assisted by the other Russian planes in the convoy; ran out of fuel too soon if at

all; it did not contact Kaliningrad air control on the Su-27’s emergency radio with

emergency frequencies; and could have contacted Lithuanian air controllers, both for

civil aviation and with NATO’s radar in Lithuania, who are fluent in Russian as well

as English. Lithuania’s ace pilot, Colonel (ret.) Stasys Murza, is among those

asking such questions.

According to the Russian side, when fuel ran out the pilot crashed the plane

deliberately into the empty field to avoid damage to lives and property. The

investigation, however, does not rule out the possibility that the deep intrusion

may itself have been deliberate, as part of an intelligence mission or practice of

an operation. This theory gained currency when Lithuanian journalists identified

Troyanov in film footage aired in October 2004 by Belarus state television, about a

joint training simulation of a deliberate intrusion into Belarus air space.

Officials and the public also consider the distinct possibility that the flight may

have been a planned operation to test NATO’s air defense system and response

capability in the Baltic states. Radar in Lithuania did not register the deep

intrusion because the plane was flying low. Two NATO planes based at Zokniai in

north-central Lithuania — they are German air force F-4s in the current rotation —

spotted the Russian plane just after it had nosedived and while the pilot was


Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov apologized to his Lithuanian counterpart,

Gediminas Kirkilas, by telephone on September 15 and offered compensation for any

damages. Since that date, however, Russia’s ministries of Foreign Affairs and

Defense claim that the pilot and plane are legally immune. Moscow demands that the

pilot and the plane’s wreckage including the black box be handed over to Russia.

Lithuania’s Prosecutor-General’s Office and Defense Ministry are conducting a legal

and a military investigation, respectively, into the incident. Troyanov’s status was

changed as early as September 16 from witness to suspect of violating international

flight regulations. He is being questioned in the presence of a Lithuanian lawyer

and in contact with the Russian embassy in Vilnius. From September 17 on, the

Lithuanians have allowed Maj.-General Sergei Baynetov, head of the Russian Defense

Ministry’s flight safety service, with a group of Russian officers to observe the

investigations as bystanders. Lithuanian authorities rule out any parallel Russian

investigation or a Lithuanian-Russian joint investigation.

Estonia was affected by the first phase of this incident. While passing through

Estonia’s flight information area, the Russian planes deactivated their transmitters

that should provide airspace controllers with data about the flight. Inasmuch as

Estonia’s Defense Ministry had granted permission for the flight in advance, it was

all the more justified in issuing a protest against the action of “Russian air force

planes switching off the transmitters, thereby posing a threat to the safety of

civil aviation.” Russia’s First Deputy Defense Minister, Col.-General Alexander

Belousov, in a public reply, denied outright that the planes were required to send

flight-path data to air controllers while over flying international waters. However,

such provision should be required in order to verify that the planes adhere to the

flight path. Russian air force planes sometimes deviate from it,

violating Estonia’s air space and over flying Estonian islands.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania form an integral part of NATO’s air space. Such

incidents should generate discussion at NATO headquarters on improving the alliance’

air policing mission in this region.

(ELTA, BNS, Lietuvos Rytas, Interfax, Russian Television, September 16-19)