HELSINKI — Sweden's Joint Forces Command (JFC) is reporting "unprecedented" Cold War-era levels of activity by Russian military bombers and fighter aircraft over the Baltic Sea area.
The JFC's assessment follows protests by Nordic governments to the Kremlin over a recent near collision between a Russian military signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft and a commercial jet liner in international airspace over the Baltic Sea in recent days.
"We've not seen this scale of activity before," said Lt. Gen. Göran Mårtensson, the JFC's chief of joint operations.
The near-collision between the Russian SIGINT aircraft and a Cimber Airlines CRJ 200 ER plane took place in skies between Sweden and Denmark on Dec. 12. The incident has provoked a diplomatic row between Sweden, Denmark and Moscow.
The Russian aircraft, according to Sweden's Defense Ministry, came within 9 kilometers of the Scandinavian commercial airliner.
Sweden and Denmark maintain that a collision was avoided when the Swedish military's airspace surveillance and air-traffic control unit alerted Cimber to the immediate danger and instructed its pilots to take evasive action and alter course. Danish F-16s and Swedish Gripen jets were scrambled to identify and shadow the Russian aircraft.
Moreover, Denmark and Sweden responded to the incident by calling in the respective Russia ambassadors to their countries.
The ambassadors were asked to explain why the SIGINT aircraft was flying with its transponders turned off, rendering it invisible to Danish and Swedish civilian aircraft air-traffic control radars.
Russia has denied that its SIGINT aircraft posed a threat to the Cimber plane, or that its aircraft was flying with transponders off.
"Denmark and Sweden are working together on this near-collision incident. We have made our protests to Russia very clear," said Margot Wallström, Sweden's foreign minister.
Senior MoD officials from Sweden and Denmark will meet in coming weeks to discuss adopting new joint measures, potentially together with Finland, Norway and the Baltic states, to strengthen general airspace surveillance and security over the Baltic Sea.
"It is clear that we are in a situation of heightened Russian activity. The behavior of this Russian aircraft was highly inappropriate, and it is important that we develop closer contacts," said Nicolai Wammen, Denmark's defense minister.
Much of the elevated traffic, including multi-branch exercise activity, by Russian military aircraft is between northern and western air bases and the Kaliningrad exclave between Lithuania and Poland.
The most common bombers and jet fighters include Tu-95 (NATO designation – Bear), Tu-22M, Su-34, Su-27, Su-24, MiG-31s and Ilyushin Il-76 and Antonov An-26 multi-purpose aircraft.