RUSSIA has accused a US spy jet which was flying over the Black Sea of a "near miss" just 20m from a plane packed with 142 passengers.
The civilian Airbus A330 was flying from Tel Aviv to Moscow and was ordered to lower its path by 1,640ft to “dodge” the “dangerous approach” of the reconnaissance aircraft.
One report said there was less than 20 metres – 66ft – vertically between the paths of the planes over a sea that is now the focus of bitter rivalry between Russia on one hand and the West and Ukraine on the other.
It comes after fears of war are growing in the region as US intelligence revealed they believe Vladimir Putin is preparing for a massive offensive against Ukraine.
Russia has denied any aggressive intent towards Ukraine.
Russian transport officials said the spy plane was a CL-600 Artemis, and there was “visual contact” from the Aeroflot aircraft.
Earlier, Russia had claimed to have deployed Su-27 and Su-30 fighters to deter a separate NATO reconnaissance plane, an American RC-135, and a CL-600 over the Black Sea.
"One of the two reconnaissance aircraft over the Black Sea chaotically crossed established civil aviation routes and approached the passenger Airbus Tel Aviv-Moscow,” said an air traffic controller, according to Russian reports.
"The crew (of the passenger plane) reported the hazardous proximity alarm going off. There was less than 20 metres vertically between the aircraft."
The reconnaissance aircraft was unidentified as it entered the Rostov Flight Information Region area, say the Russians.
Aeroflot flight SU501 was en route from Tel Aviv to Moscow.
Referring to the US spy plane, an Interfax report said: “The offending aircraft did not respond to requests from the ground.”
The US plane is believed to have flown from an air force base in Greece.
The Russian plane first descended then climbed to 35,925ft, as it took evasive action, it is claimed.
The NATO plane did not respond to “repeated requests” from air traffic controllers, reported RIA Novosti.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow made no immediate comment about Saturday's Interfax report concerning the incident, according to Reuters.
And the latest incident will just fuel the tensions already raging in the region between Russia and the West.
US intelligence last week revealed they believe Vladimir Putin is massing some 175,000 men along with a large arsenal of tanks and artillery to prepare for an attack on Ukraine.
Western observers have been nervously watching the rumbling of Russian troops and armour near the former Soviet state over the past few months.
According to the official the analysis is partly based on satellite images that “show newly arrived units at various locations along the Ukrainian border over the last month.”
Russia has long been feared to have ambitions to seize back parts of Ukraine, which broke away with the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s.
Putin illegally annexed Crimea from the country in 2014 – a move that plunged the region into Chaos.
Moscow always claims it was merely liberating people who wanted to be part of Russia.
And meanwhile a civil war has also been raging in Eastern Ukraine ever since, which sees Kiev pitted against pro-Russian rebels who allegedly receive material support from the Kremlin.
US intelligence reportedly fears Russia is preparing for a "massive offensive" against Ukraine in a move that would test the West's resolve.
Kiev's allies have always pledged to support them, but intervening against Russia could risk spiraling into a conflict that could explode into World War 3.
Russia has been demanding Ukraine will not join NATO and raging the US must stop all military activity in the region.
Kiev's defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov said intelligence indicated a possible Russian invasion in late January.
Russia has previously warned war is "highly likely" saying that Kiev's desire to retake Crimea is a "direct threat" to them.
Putin has also ordered US officials to leave Russia – further stoking tensions.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Putin could quickly order an invasion of Ukraine if he had a pretext for doing so.
He said America was "deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine”.
"We don't know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know he's putting in place the capacity to do so in short order," he said.
Russia has also "intensified disinformation to paint Ukraine as the aggressor" and increased anti-Ukrainian propaganda by more than tenfold to levels not seen since its 2014 invasion of the country.
"The idea that Ukraine represents a threat to Russia would be a bad joke if things weren't so serious," he said.
He said Putin may "claim provocation for something that they were planning to do all along.”
What is happening between Russia and Ukraine?
RUSSIA and the Ukraine have remained technically at war since 2014.
Ukraine was aligned with Russia as part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, following which it became an independent state.
Both nations remained closely tied – but Ukraine gradually began to distance itself, seeking deeper ties with the West.
The open conflict was triggered by the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014 – when an uprising overthrew the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych.
Vladimir Putin's forces reacted by annexing the region of Crimea from Ukraine – a move which was widely condemned by the West.
The conflict then spiralled when pro-Russian groups in Eastern Ukraine then took up arms against the state.
Russia gave their backing the separatist forces which formed breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Putin's forces then launched a military incursion into these regions as they gave their support to the rebels.
Russia continues to hold Crimea – and claims the region joined them willingly after they a referendum.
Seven years have now passed and the War in Donbass remains at a stalemate.
It is estimated some 14,000 have been killed in the conflict, including more than 3,0o0 civilians.
Ukraine and the rebels signed a new ceasefire in July 2020 – but clashes have been steadily increasing again throughout 2021.
Russian troops have also been detected moving around the borders of Ukraine – stoking fears that 2022 could be the year of an invasion.
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