Finland sent F-18s to intercept intruding Russian aircraft twice on May 20. (Finland Defense Forces)
HELSINKI — Finland’s National Border Guard confirmed Thursday that it has suspended its investigation into repeated violations on May 20 of Finnish airspace by Russian military aircraft until the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can obtain “formal identification” of the aircraft involved from Russian authorities.
A preliminary inquiry by the National Border Guard (NBG) concluded that two Russian military transport/surveillance aircraft (variants unknown), provisionally identified as an Antonov An-26 and a Tupolev Tu-154, trespassed into Finnish airspace on May 20 while on routes over the Gulf of Finland.
Finnish F-18 Hornets, several of which were already airborne at the time of the intrusions, were sent to intercept the intruders, which were located east of Porvoo on Finland’s south coast.
The Russian aircraft are suspected to belong to Russia’s Baltic Military Maritime Fleet, which has bases in Kaliningrad and in Kronstadt, near St Petersburg.
While government officials and military chiefs are playing down the significance of the airspace intrusion, some leading politicians are suggesting that the violations could be connected to recent pro-NATO cooperation statements by Finland and criticism by the Finnish government of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.
The airspace intrusions also took place on the same day the Finnish military was conducting large-scale exercises by land, air and naval forces in northern and southern Finland.
“There may be a perfectly innocent explanation for the first airspace violation that took place, but it seems too coincidental that a second happened so soon after. Serial violations by Russian military aircraft have not happened for some time. The second intrusion is particularly serious,” said Timo Soini, chairman of Finland’s Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs
The airspace violations may be linked to regional tensions over Ukraine and the critical position that Finland has adopted regarding Russia’s involvement in the crisis, said Martti Ahtisaari, an ex-president of Finland (1994-2000) and the UN’s former special envoy to Kosovo (2005).
“I hope there will be an apology over this. Incidents such as these require documenting and follow-up investigations. One is left to wonder if events like this happen simply due to navigational errors, or if Russia is somehow testing their capability and the limits of our defenses,” Ahtisaari said.
NBG’s preliminary report suggests that, “navigational errors remain the most probable cause” for the airspace violations. According to the report, the first intrusion by the Antonov An-26 plane was clocked at 17:06. The aircraft remained in Finnish airspace for three minutes.
The second intrusion, by the Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft, was clocked at 17:57, and the plane remained in Finnish airspace 19 miles for six minutes. The NBG report speculates that the aircraft may have strayed into Finnish airspace to “avoid a storm front.”
The finalization of the NBG’s investigation is dependent on Russia’s response to a request filed by Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking an official explanation on the dual airspace violations.
“We take airspace violations seriously, and we are seeking an explanation from Russia. We hope that the incidents are not related in any way to the situation in Ukraine,” said Defense Minister Carl Haglund.
However, Finnish defense chief Gen. Ari Puheloinen is playing down the significance of the double airspace violations. Describing national concern as “understandable” against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine, Puheloinen said it would be unwise to read too much in to the incidents.
“Once we obtain the investigative material we will be able to draw conclusions, find out what air traffic controllers said to the aircraft when they entered our airspace, and what the outcome was. These are the factors that will form the basis for conclusions,” Puheloinen said. ■