Russian fighter jets have been using NATO ships in the Black Sea as target practice to run "attack scenarios," a situation that NATO military officials say they are aware of and prepared to defend against if necessary.
In the latest sign of provocation against Western forces by Moscow, Russia is ordering its newest Su-30 multi-role fighter jets to track NATO forces and run mock attack drills to simulate penetrating NATO's anti-air systems, according to Sputnik, a pro-Moscow news agency.
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A NATO military officer said that regional forces are "closely monitoring" the Russian movements and are prepared to defend themselves if necessary.
The Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2), which is stationed in the Black Sea, "is closely monitoring Russian air and surface activity, and no interactions with Russian ships or aircraft have posed any threat to the safety of the group since the ships entered the Black Sea," the military official said. "The group is very capable of defending itself and is well protected by a variety of state-of-the-art defensive systems."
The military officer said that the SNMG2 group has made no secret of its presence in the region.
SNMG2 "is in the Black Sea conducting regularly-scheduled maneuvers and exercises with Allied national Naval forces," the officer explained. "This activity is within international norms and will take place in Allied and international waters. All major NATO exercises are announced well in advance and information on our activities is routinely published on public websites."
Russia appears to have used the public nature of the NATO exercises as an opportunity to test-run attack maneuvers with its advanced Su-30s, according to Sputnik.
Moscow has reportedly focused on two specific NATO ships, the USS Vicksburg missile cruiser and the Turkish TCG Turgutreis frigate, according to Sputnik. Both ships are said to be operating in the southwestern section of the Black Sea.
The Russian planes have also "conducted monitoring flights over these ships from the Novofedorovka air base," the report claims.
One Russian official quoted by Moscow's RIA Novosti publication said it is natural for the country to practice war drills on these ships.
"These ships' crews are doubtlessly conducting exercises in repelling air attacks from our planes, which gives our pilots the opportunity to gain experience in maneuvering and conducting aerial reconnaissance both in the range of anti-air systems and outside their range," the Russian military official was quoted as saying.
Anna Borshchevskaya, an adjunct fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), said Russia's aggressive behavior highlights NATO's waning influence in the region.
"This highlights the troubling exercise gap between NATO and Russia," she said. "As Russia's aggression in Ukraine continues—which threatens Europe beyond Ukraine, and as Russia is increasing its military spending, most NATO members are doing little about the decline in their own military spending."
Russia has for some time taken increasingly bold military actions, both in Europe and near U.S. territory.
Russian strategic nuclear bombers entered some 16 northwestern U.S. air defense zones over a 10-day period in August 2014, the Free Beacon reported.
Russian bombers also have carried out drills near Alaska in the past year.
Two Russian bombers were identified in September as carrying out practice cruise missile strikes on the United States.