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United States warns Russia to stop flyovers

| Monday, May 2, 2016, 11:05 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Russian jets “buzzing” a U.S. military ship and planes in the Baltics are escalating tension between the two nations, the chief of naval operations said Monday.

“My hope is that we can stop this sort of activity,” Adm. John M. Richardson said at the Pentagon.

“I don't think the Russians are trying to provoke an incident. I think they're trying to send a signal,” he added. “I think it's pretty clear that they are wanting to let us know that they see that we are up there in the Baltic.”

He urged Moscow to abide by a maritime agreement, signed by U.S. and Soviet powers in 1972, to avoid naval mishaps and prevent any such event from escalating.

“We continue to advocate for that,” Richardson said.

The Baltic countries regained their independence in the early 1990s after nearly five decades under Soviet occupation.

The Defense Department said a Russian SU-27 conducted a barrel roll Friday over an Air Force RC-135 that was flying a reconnaissance mission above the Baltic Sea. In April, a Russian jet flew about 50 feet from the wing tip of an American aircraft, and two Russian jets flew close to the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea.

The Pentagon and NATO chastised the Kremlin for the flyovers, calling the maneuvers “unsafe and unprofessional.”

Richardson said the actions increase the chance of a “tactical miscalculation,” but that if an incident were to occur, the United States would tamp down any rise in tensions between the countries.

“We look for sort of a normalization there,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week defended the actions of Russian warplanes that buzzed the USS Donald Cook, saying the pilots decided to take a look at the Navy destroyer “from a safe distance.” The planes were less than 100 feet away from the deck of the ship, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour.

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the pilots' actions and said the Navy ship could have opened fire.

Last month, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told congressional lawmakers that all options — including military force — should be considered as possible responses should Russia continue its overt harassment of U.S. forces.

Scaparrotti, President Obama's pick to lead the Pentagon's European Command, or EUCOM, said American forces will not relinquish their right to operate in international waters, regardless of ongoing Russian challenges.

Military leaders “should keep everything on the table,” including action, as a potential response, he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing April 21 to take the reins at EUCOM.

The Senate confirmed the four-star general to the EUCOM post Thursday.

Moscow has expressed displeasure about the proximity of American ships and planes to its borders. Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have sent tensions soaring between Russia and the United States. In a bid to ease fears of Russian aggression against Eastern Europe, NATO has deployed thousands of troops in the region and increased patrols and exercises.

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