Flights over international airspace by two Russian jets have caused havoc at a NATO airbase in Lithuania, abruptly disrupting a press briefing underway by the Lithuanian president and the visiting Spanish prime minister.
The incident on Thursday transpired as two Spanish jet fighters had to scramble during the press conference by Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez amid presumed threat by the Russian jets above the Baltics.
Nauseda and Sánchez were speaking with two Spanish jets behind them at a base in the town of Siauliai when security authorities suddenly intervened and crews scrambled to get on the fighter jets, live footage from the press event showed.
A NATO official later said the two Spanish warplanes took off "to identify two aircraft flying into the Baltic Sea area,” claiming that the two Russian Su-24 jets “did not file a flight plan, did not have their flight transponder on, or talk to traffic controllers.”
The Russian Defense Ministry insisted that the two Su-24s flew a regular training mission over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea.
“The flight was performed in strict accordance with international rules of using airspace and without violation of any country's borders.”
Amid tensions, both Russia and NATO member nations have regularly scrambled warplanes to identify and shadow each other’s aircraft.
The three Baltic nations — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — joined NATO in 2004 and have no fighter jets of their own. The Western military alliance has the responsibility of policing their airspace on a rotational four-month basis from the Lithuanian base in Siualiai and in Amari, Estonia.
Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT quoted Nauseda as saying after the incident, "Thanks to Pedro (Sánchez), we have really seen how our air policing mission works.”
As the press briefing resumed, Sánchez also boasted: “We have seen a real case of what usually happens that precisely justifies the presence of Spanish troops with the seven Eurofighters in Lithuania.”
According to press reports, NATO aerial missions are on standby around the clock every day of the year. They were scrambled nearly 400 times in Europe last year, mostly in response to flights by Russian aircraft.
Sánchez was on the final day of a three-day trip to the Baltic region and earlier met with officials in Estonia and Latvia.
Russia accuses France of ‘racism’
Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blasted remarks on Thursday by French Foreign Minister Clément Beaune who said those who were inoculated with Russian or Chinese vaccines should be shut out of the EU.
Zakharova said calls by the French minister against registering the Russian and Chinese Covid-19 vaccines in the EU were “unacceptable” and “neo-Nazism.”
“It is a hybrid of racism, imperial hegemony, and neo-Nazism: entire peoples are denied equal rights and opportunities, in contrary to laws, ethics, and morality, pushing the world to confrontation at a time when it is being severely tested by the pandemic,” Zakharova wrote on her Telegram account.
France’s top diplomat pleaded with other European countries to “be cautious” and not accept jabs from Russia and China.
Konstantin Kosachev, the vice-speaker of Russia’s Federation Council, said such claims are contrary to the interests of French citizens, insisting that vaccines don’t have a national identity and should be available to everyone.
The development came a day after British scientific journal Nature published an article stating that Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine had been proven to be safe and effective.