For the third time in two months Russian fighters have intercepted a U.S. aircraft over the eastern Mediterranean in what the U.S. Navy described as “an unsafe and unprofessional manner.” The latest encounter occurred on May 26 and involved two VKS (Russian aerospace forces) Sukhoi Su-35 “Flanker-Es” flying from Hmeimim air base in Syria, which intercepted a Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft flying in international airspace. The Su-35s shadowed the P-8A for 65 minutes, during which time they took up close station on either side of the P-8, “restricting the P-8A’s ability to safely maneuver.”
This encounter follows two similarly “unsafe interactions” in April and led the Navy to state: “We expect them to operate within international standards set to ensure safety and to prevent incidents, including the 1972 Agreement for the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas (INCSEA). Actions like these increase the potential for midair collisions.”
These intercepts come at a time when attention in the Mediterranean theater is increasingly focused on Libya, where the Turkey- and Qatar-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is fighting with the forces of the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA), which has the backing of Russia, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Led by General Khalifa Haftar, the LNA has been engaged in a civil war with the GNA since 2014.
On May 26, the U.S. Africa Command (Africom) issued a statement of its assessment that Russia is behind the recent deployment of Mikoyan MiG-29 “Fulcrum” and Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer” aircraft to support the LNA in Libya, a claim that is supported by a series of intelligence photos. Both Libyan factions have reported that six MiG-29s and two Su-24s have been deployed. Africom reports that the aircraft transited from Russia via Hmeimim, where they were repainted to “camouflage their Russian origin.” The aircraft were then flown to Libya, with escort provided by two Su-35s for at least part of their transit.
The MiGs have been deployed to Al Jufra air base, in a desert region south of Surt, where one was spotted along with a supporting Ilyushin Il-76 transport. Saqr al-Jaroushi, the chief of the LNA’s air force, is reported by Bloomberg as saying that the aircraft would be used in the “largest aerial campaign in Libyan history in the coming hours.” Africom’s assessment states that the aircraft have been sent to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors that are fighting with the LNA, notably the Wagner Group.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” said U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, Africom commander. “For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya—every step of the way. Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate, and sustain these fighters without state support—support they are getting from Russia.”