Russia's air force commander on Tuesday accused the United States and its NATO allies of provoking confrontation over the Baltic Sea by sending spy planes near the Russian border "practically every day."
"Strategic reconnaissance aircraft RC-135 of the U.S. Air Force perform flights practically every day," the Tass news agency quoted Bondarev as saying. He put the number of RC-135 flights in the vicinity of Russian borders at 140 so far this year, compared with 22 in 2013.
As relations between the former Cold War adversaries have plunged into a new phase of distrust over Kremlin aggression against Ukraine, Russian and NATO surveillance aircraft have taken to the skies in rival shows of force over the Baltic region, which was under Soviet domination for most of the previous century.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union at the advent of World War II, but have spun into the Western security orbit since breaking free of Moscow's control amid the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. All three former Soviet Baltic republics are now part of the 28-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as are Baltic Sea littoral states Poland and what was Communist East Germany during the Cold War era.
Putin is also accused by the new Ukrainian leadership and its Western allies of sending arms and fighters to bolster the separatist movement that has wrested key areas of eastern Ukraine from the Kiev government's control.
NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission last week intercepted 80 Russian aircraft on 21 occasions near the borders of the Baltic states, the Lithuanian Defense Ministry said in a statement Monday. Most of the Russian spy planes were flying with their transponders turned off, the ministry said.
London-based European Leadership Network last month reported a sharp increase in Russian air operations that have penetrated or approached the airspace of NATO members. Three of the 40 incidents cited in the report were said to have had a "high probability" of causing casualties or military confrontation.
NATO reported in mid-October that the number of provocative incidents involving Russian planes and ships had already tripled over the previous year.