The 25-foot buzzing of a Navy recon aircraft was more likely the result of the "unprofessional" conduct of the Russian fighter pilot acting on his own rather than a deliberate attempt by Moscow to provoke an incident, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters said Thursday.
Wolters, who doubles as NATO Supreme Commander and head of U.S. European Command, said he had looked at the camera footage of the incident in international airspace over the Mediterranean Sea on Wednesday.
"My conclusion at this point is that it was probably something more along the lines of unprofessional as opposed to deliberate," he said.
He added that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had lodged "our dissatisfaction" with the Russian government.
For the moment, however the dangerous flyby has "been characterized as unsafe, unprofessional, and that's exactly what it looks to be at this point," Wolters said in a telephone conference from Europe.
In a statement Wednesday, the Navy said the single-seat Russian Sukhoi Su-35 came within 25 feet of a Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft while at high speed and inverted, causing wake turbulence and putting the U.S. "pilots and crew at risk."
The Russian fighter, designated "Flanker" by NATO, also shadowed the Poseidon for about 42 minutes before breaking contact, the Navy said in a statement.
"While the Russian aircraft was operating in international airspace, this interaction was irresponsible," the Navy statement said.
In his comments, Wolters also warned of a growing Russian disinformation campaign aimed at sowing discord among NATO allies over the response to the coronavirus pandemic in Europe.
He said the Russians were seeking to "downplay the importance of one nation in NATO providing [personal protective equipment] to another," and noted he was also concerned about reports that Russian intelligence agents were accompanying relief flights to Italy.
On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also charged that Moscow was trying to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis by "trying to sow division in the alliance and in Europe" and to "undermine our democracies."
"We are countering these false narratives with facts, and with concrete actions," Stoltenberg said in a virtual news conference. "We are also working even closer with Allies, and the European Union, to identify, monitor, and expose disinformation, and to respond robustly."
Wolters also said that the epidemic had severely curtailed NATO and European Command exercises and joint training, but he stressed that the ability of the alliance to deter and defend was undiminished.
"We will be constantly adjusting the scope and scale of our exercises" in response to the coronavirus crisis, Wolters said.
If an exercise can't be fully completed, "we will attempt to keep it on track and if there's no ability to do so we'll look at cancellation or postponement," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.