Russia rejects criticism of fly-by near US Navy destroyer

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s defense ministry has rejected complaints by U.S. officials who said Russian attack planes buzzed dangerously close to a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea this week.

The U.S. European command says the Russian planes buzzed the ship multiple times Monday and Tuesday in what the U.S. officials described as an unsafe and unprofessional manner.

Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN Espanol that under U.S. military rules of engagement, the Navy ship could have opened fire. He condemned the Russian actions. He said that “under the rules of engagement” it “could have been a shootdown.”

In all cases a military commander has the authority to defend his or her ship, plane or other unit. The commander is expected to use his or her best judgment under the circumstances to determine whether the ship faces an imminent threat.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook reported that pairs of Russian Su-24 attack planes made numerous close-range passes and that the planes appeared to be unarmed. On at least one occasion, an Su-24 came within an estimated 30 feet of the Cook, which was in international waters about 70 nautical miles from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which hosts Russian military forces.

The Cook did not respond to the provocation except to unsuccessfully query the Russian pilots by radio.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. raised its concerns through its military defense representative at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Russian Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the defense ministry, said Thursday that the pilots of the planes saw the ship and turned back “while using all measures of precaution.” Konashenkov said he was baffled by what he described as the “distressed reaction of our American counterparts.”

The U.S. European Command statement on Wednesday said officials are using diplomatic channels to address the matter.

“It may have been in international waters and therefore may not be any violation of international law, but it is still irresponsible behavior,” said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

“It illustrates that Russia is contributing to tensions,” he said, speaking during a break in a security conference in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.