Multiple times this week, Russian planes have flown aggressively close to a US warship in the Baltic Sea, the USS Donald Cook. How close, you ask? Basically on top of it — as seen in the above video, released by the US military on Wednesday afternoon.
It shows two Russian Su-24s flying right up close and personal to the Donald Cook on Tuesday afternoon. It goes pretty fast, so here's a still (released by the military to CBS's Cami McCormick) that shows just how close one of the Russian planes came:
It was not just this one time. On Monday and again on Tuesday, two Russian Su-24s made repeated close-range, low-altitude passes over the Donald Cook, according to a Pentagon statement. The Russian pilots did not respond to radio signals from the US destroyer in either Russian or English.
There have been previous such incidents. In April 2014, a Russian fighter made roughly 12 passes at the Donald Cook, which was then deployed in the Black Sea. It, too, refused to respond to radio communications.
US officials have repeatedly referred to these incidents as "unsafe and unprofessional," and that's about the lay of it. The Russians weren't trying to start a war — the Russian plane taped above was unarmed, according to CBS News. However, this sort of aggressive behavior risks accidental escalation into outright conflict, which is very scary indeed.
"We have deep concerns about the unsafe and unprofessional Russian flight maneuvers," US European Command said in a statement. "These actions have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries, and could result in a miscalculation or accident that could cause serious injury or death."
The Baltic Sea is a particularly troubling area for this to be happening. The Baltic Sea is, of course, adjacent to the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), NATO allies that border Russia. Russia has harassed those states in the past, by (for example) sending its boats into Latvian waters 40 times. It's an area of some tension between Washington, treaty-bound to defend its allies, and Moscow.
That makes provocative incidents like these dangerous. According to a report by the European Leadership Institute think tank, they have a "high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation between Russia and Western states."
This doesn't mean World War III is going to start tomorrow: The risk of fighting between the US and Russia, let alone war, is really quite low. But this kind of overflight does make the risk of a deadly miscalculation more likely, which is pretty scary given that we're talking about two nuclear-armed countries.