VILNIUS - A Russian Su-27 fighter, apparently taking part in a training mission, illegally entered Lithuanian airspace and subsequently crashed. The pilot safely ejected from the craft, but the incident sparked a major confrontation not only between neighbors, but NATO and Russia.
The accident, which took place Sept. 15, also raised questions over NATO's ability to monitor airspace violations.
The Su-27 went down at 3:15 p.m. in a field near the village of Ploksciai. According to preliminary reports, the warplane crashed due to a failure with navigational equipment.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the pilot had become disoriented and crossed the Lithuanian border unknowingly.
The Su-27 had been flying in a Russian convoy of six fighter jets over the neutral waters of the Baltic Sea when it veered off course into Lithuanian airspace. The plane had departed from St. Petersburg and was bound for a military airstrip in Kaliningrad. It was accompanied by an A-50 early warning plane, Russia's equivalent to NATO's AWACS.
What's more, the fighter had been carrying live ordnance when it crashed. Experts found two air-to-air missiles on Sept. 18, though it was unclear exactly which type they were.
"The missiles did not detonate when the plane crashed as they have a few safety-catches. Missiles are activated after they are targeted during a shot. On the other hand, they would have detonated if the fuel tank had exploded," Armed Forces Commander Major General Valdas Tutkus was quoted as saying.
The Prosecutor General's Office brought charges of violating international flight regulations against the pilot, Major Valery Troyanov, who was questioned for almost six hours on Sept. 16.
Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said he believed the violation was unintentional. "According to information we have now, it was clearly an accident, not an attempt to attack strategic targets in Lithuania," he said. "We know that the plane flew into our territory giving a "SOS signal."
His Russian colleague, Sergei Ivanov, was quoted as saying that the Russians "hoped further investigation would confirm this."
During a telephone conversation with Kirkilas, Ivanov asked Lithuania to hand over the Russian pilot. Kirkilas refused, saying officials must first complete their investigation.
"We will not hand the pilot and the black box of the crashed plane over to Moscow until the investigation is complete," Kirkilas said.
Tutkus said there would be no joint investigation into the incident, although an analysis of the plane's flight records would be open to Russian investigators.
The Russian Defense Ministry has since apologized for the crash, promising to pay for any damage caused. Lithuanians estimate the cost at 2,900 euros.
The Russian ministry stated that, after reporting his difficulties, pilot Major Valery Troyanov flew in circles to use up fuel and then parachuted from the craft.
Several minutes after landing safely, Troyanov, 36, was detained and taken to a police station in the nearby town of Jurbarkas. Lithuanian police reported that, although uninjured, the pilot was in a state of shock and could not tell much about the accident.
Air force traffic controllers in neighboring Belarus reported an SOS signal shortly before Troyanov crashed. The officials contacted Lithuania immediately.
Although two German F-4 Phantom fighters took off from Zokniai air base after Troyanov entered Lithuanian airspace, neither reached the jet before it crashed, the Lithuanian Defense Ministry said.
"We had information that a group of Russian military planes would be flying through a neutral corridor near the Lithuanian border," said Tutkus. "Our radars, which had been surveying the group, detected that one jet had separated from the others to fly into Lithuanian airspace and minutes later crash into a field."
The Su-27 was taking part in an exercise as part of a reinforcement force sent to the Kaliningrad exclave, where, in accordance to the scenario, the land-based air control system had already been knocked out by enemy fire. With the A-50 serving as command center, the state-of-the-art fighter took off from St. Petersburg.
Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian military analyst, commented on the incident in The Moscow Times, "Russian airplanes in recent months have approached the border of the Baltic states in war formation and often were reported to have briefly strayed into their air space."
The accident is being investigated by two commissions - an interdepartmental commission drawn by the defense minister, which also includes Russian military experts, and a commission made up by the Armed Forces commander.
The latter commission said it would not move the aircraft's black box until members are 100 percent sure they would be able to decode all flight data recorders.
Not surprisingly, the Lithuanian media questioned whether NATO was living up to its security guarantee.
"They tell us that we're protected under a safe umbrella. This incident, however, shows that the umbrella sometimes doesn't unfold," wrote analyst Arturas Racas. "NATO is simply a game of grown-up men that involves a lot of money. In reality, it doesn't guarantee protection but still requires loads of investment."
For Russia, the incident once again shows the calamitous state of its military. As Felgenhauer wrote, "The decay of Russia's military has sunk to a level where it is increasingly incapable of safely operating its sophisticated, Soviet-made weaponry. Time and again jets plunge, subs explode and nuclear missiles fail."
"The Soviet Union was a threat because of its strength - Putin's Russia is a threat because of its weakness," the analyst wrote.