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)