It was by all accounts an accident: The Russian pilot said he lost his way and strayed over nearby Lithuania, ran low on fuel, pointed his SU-27 fighter jet toward an empty field and ejected.
Except hardly anyone in Lithuania is buying that.
The holes in Maj. Valery Troyanov’s story are big enough to fly a squadron of bickering diplomats through. For one thing, the front-line combat plane wasn’t unarmed, as Russian officials initially claimed, but was equipped with four air-to-air missiles and a loaded 30-millimeter cannon. Then too: Why had it strayed 120 miles off course into Lithuanian territory on its Sept. 15 flight from St. Petersburg? Why did it turn off its signaling equipment? And why did it fly under the radar?
The Russians have watched in misery for two weeks as their pilot and plane have been painstakingly examined in the former Soviet republic, now a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
This week they ventured a taunting question of their own: Why did it take the alliance’s air defense jets so long to detect the Russian intruder?
“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?” Russian air force chief Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov asked.
“For more than 20 minutes, this big aircraft was flying over the territory of Lithuania, but it was spotted only when it crashed.”
In a contretemps reminiscent of the Cold War, Russia and Lithuania have been trading barbs since the jet crossed the border and landed near the village of Ploksciai, about 90 miles northwest of Vilnius, the capital -- even though the Kremlin has apologized and senior officials on both sides have pledged to cooperate in the investigation.
Prosecutors renewed their interrogation of the pilot Wednesday after a review of the plane’s flight recorders, undertaken without Russia’s repeated offers of help, revealed that the airman had made “many mistakes” in programming his navigation equipment, Lithuanian Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said.
“We need to clarify beyond any doubt whether it was a deliberate violation or not,” Alvydas Sadeckas, chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, said in a telephone interview.
Just how seriously the Lithuanians were taking the matter became clear Monday, when air force commander Col. Jonas Marcinkus was sacked for reasons that officials acknowledged were connected with the SU-27 affair. Reportedly, his superiors were unhappy with a series of telephone conversations he had with senior Russian military officials.
NATO, which took responsibility for patrolling the skies over Lithuania and neighboring Estonia and Latvia when the three Baltic states joined the alliance in 2004, has come in for its own share of heat among Lithuanians. They also are wondering why it took the German patrol planes so long to respond.
“Some people have said, ‘Why do we have NATO if a Russian fighter has been for 20 minutes in Lithuanian airspace, and NATO is late?’ ” Arturas Racas, an analyst with the Baltic News Service, said in a telephone interview.
Two decades ago, Soviet planes routinely patrolled the skies of the Baltic region. Lithuania and its neighbors were among the first to bolt for independence in 1991 after the collapse of communism and are the only former Soviet republics so far to have been admitted to NATO.
Russia opposed having the alliance at its doorstep and has continued to quarrel with the Baltic states over border issues, treatment of Russian-language speakers in the now-independent nations and occasional Russian border incursions.
Russian military analysts say the SU-27 was on a combat training exercise, flying with six other fighters and an airborne command-and-control plane toward the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea.
“The plane was actually on maneuvers that simulated a war with Poland and Lithuania involved,” said Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. “These are maneuvers that imply that NATO was attacking the Kaliningrad area. They were expecting to be intercepted by NATO planes over the Baltics, and that’s what makes the situation rather awkward.
“Obviously, the Russians are rather nervous about what the pilot’s going to say,” he added.
Officially, Russian authorities have not said what the planes were doing, except that the aircraft were making a lawful flight to Kaliningrad when the fighter jet’s navigation and communication systems failed and the pilot became lost.
NATO has left the investigation to Lithuania and has suggested that the incident might help promote the idea of cooperative control of the crowded airspace of northern Europe.