Russian pilots have begun buzzing American fighter jets over Syria in apparent invitations to dogfight, according to the three-star general in charge of U.S. air operations in the Middle East.
It’s the latest example of Russian troops growing increasingly confrontational toward the U.S. and its allies as they cross paths over war zones and in shared airspace around the world.
Russian airmen are “increasingly bellicose” in their approach and “aggressively maneuvering, almost like they’re trying to dogfight,” Air Forces Central Command boss Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich told the publication Defense One. “Our protocols would say we’re supposed to stay … several miles apart and just monitor each other.”
He cautioned American airmen not to engage.
“We’re not going to act like they are,” Grynkewich told Defense One. “We’re going to act in a professional manner, and we’re going to try to de-escalate the situation.”
For months, Grynkewich has warned of increasingly hostile actions by Russian forces in Syria, where Moscow backs the Assad regime in the 12-year civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced more than half of the country’s pre-war population.
About 900 U.S. personnel remain in Syria to advise and assist the patchwork of rebel forces that are fighting government troops. The Pentagon also continues to launch airstrikes and raids from elsewhere in the region in its decade-long mission to contain the Islamic State group inside Syria.
While they support forces on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, and are both fighting Islamic State militants, U.S. and Russian troops have not clashed directly. Grynkewich has suggested that “unprofessional” Russian moves could jeopardize efforts to keep the situation from escalating.
Armed Russian fighter aircraft flew over U.S.-led coalition and partner forces on the ground more than two dozen times from March 1 to April 19, AFCENT said in an April 19 press release.
Russian aircraft have also violated longstanding deconfliction protocols 85 times since March 1, including 22 in the past nine days, Air & Space Forces Magazine reported Friday. That’s an uptick from the 63 airspace violations the Air Force made public as of April 19.
The Air Force did not provide further details in response to a query Friday from Air Force Times.
But Grynkewich told NBC News in March that Russian jets had violated al-Tanf’s airspace about 25 times in 22 days, compared to zero times in February and 14 in January. That was “on track to be double what it has been in the past,” he said.
“They’re regularly flying directly overhead of our units … within about a mile, no more than a mile offset one side or the other, while we’ve got forces right there on the ground” at al-Tanf, he told NBC News. “It’s an uncomfortable situation.”
The Air Force in April released two videos that appear to show Russian Su-35 fighter jets veering close to American F-16 fighters in coalition airspace over Syria, filmed from the viewpoint of the F-16.
“The aircraft were operating in airspace that U.S.-Russian protocols recognize as coalition-controlled airspace over Syria,” said one video of an April 2 incident. “The Russian Su-35 had not been deconflicted when it entered the airspace.”
The second video, of an April 18 incident in coalition airspace, noted that the Russian pilot came within 2,000 feet of U.S. aircraft in violation of the deconfliction protocols. American jets arrived from elsewhere in the region to intercept the Su-35.
“These flights are not in line with 2019 protocols established between the coalition and Russia to avoid miscalculations and potentially dangerous encounters in airspace over Syria,” the Air Force said in its April 19 release.
The al-Tanf garrison is protected by a 34-mile deconfliction zone, and U.S. and Russian forces also share a hotline where they can discuss potential close calls. Those measures are in place to prevent U.S. and Russian forces from seeing an incoming aircraft as an attack on their respective positions, and retaliating in kind.
But Grynkewich said Russia’s recent behavior shows an unprecedented disregard for those safeguards.
“We’ve seen Russian aircraft come within 500 feet of our aircraft,” he said in the release. “As a professional air force, we will do everything in our power to ensure we maintain safety of flight and engage according to our special instructions. However, if any entity threatens the safety and security of coalition forces in the sky or on the ground, we will take swift action to address the threat.”
In March, Grynkewich suggested the uptick in Russia’s reckless behavior could be a sign that its military is trying to unnerve U.S. troops as a favor to its ally, Iran. He suspects the fly-bys are part of a joint pressure campaign to resist America’s military presence in the region.
“I can’t prove that yet, but we’re watching it very closely,” he told reporters March 7.
The aircraft are “not just passing through,” he said. “They fly in there, and they orbit around for a bit. … They’re trying to say, ‘Hey, we don’t recognize you have the ability to operate in this airspace, and we’re gonna contest you doing it.’”
Typically, the U.S. sees Russian Su-24 or Su-34 fighter jets designed to attack ground targets paired with air-to-air fighters like the Su-35, Grynkewich said. Drones and manned surveillance aircraft also poke around American positions in Syria.
“That is a little bit more concerning to me, if they’re potentially building out ... what our forces on the ground look like and how they’re arrayed,” he said.
Americans have turned to the deconfliction hotline to lodge their complaints, asking why Russian forces aren’t sending those drones to spy on the Islamic State instead, Grynkewich said. Russia has complained about U.S. behavior in return.
U.S. troops are on particularly high alert for Russian interference after an Su-27 harassed an MQ-9 Reaper intelligence drone on patrol over the Black Sea on March 14, apparently damaging it enough to force it down into the water.
It was the first time such an interaction was made public since the beginning of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. U.S. officials pointed to the incident as a uniquely unsafe moment in an area where Russian and American aircraft routinely pass without a problem.
NATO and non-allied European pilots continue to intercept Russian aircraft around Europe as well. On Wednesday, Germany and the United Kingdom sent Eurofighter jets to intercept two Su-27 fighters and an Il-20 reconnaissance plane that were flying without transponder signals in international airspace over the Baltic Sea, the German air force said on Twitter. Danish and Swedish jets also intercepted a Russian aircraft over the Baltic Sea on April 20, according to NATO’s Allied Air Command.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.