SEOUL/TOKYO – South Korean warplanes fired hundreds of warning shots at a Russian military aircraft that entered South Korean airspace Tuesday, defense officials said, in an incident that also involved Japan and China and could complicate relations in an already tense region.
While Russia denied violating any airspace and accused South Korean pilots of being reckless, the Defense Ministry in Seoul said the incident was the first time a Russian military aircraft had violated South Korean airspace.
Two Russian Tu-95 bombers and two Chinese H-6 bombers entered the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) together early Tuesday, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.
A separate Russian A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft later twice violated South Korean airspace just after 9 a.m. over Takeshima — islets occupied by Seoul, which calls them Dokdo, but also claimed by Japan.
The move prompted a rebuke from Tokyo — but to Seoul, not to Moscow, over the incident. “Takeshima is Japan’s territory,” Foreign Minister Taro Kono said.
“It is Japan that should take action against the Russian plane that entered its airspace. It is incompatible with Japan’s stance that South Korea takes steps on that,” Kono said.
Japan earlier said it had lodged a protest with both South Korea and Russia and government source in Tokyo said the Air Self-Defense Force had also scrambled fighter jets in response.
The disputed islets are located roughly 200 kilometers from either country’s mainland. South Korea has stationed security personnel there since 1954, effectively controlling them.
Japan considers the islets an integral part of its territory. But because they are controlled by South Korea, Japan has not established its own air defense identification zone over the islets.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said two Tu-95 strategic bombers carried out a planned flight, but denied that they had violated South Korean airspace and said it did not recognize South Korea’s KADIZ.
There were no warning shots from the South Korean fighter jets, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement, which made no mention of any A-50 aircraft.
The Russian ministry said two South Korean F-16 fighter planes carried out “unprofessional maneuvers,” crossing the path of Russian bombers and did not communicate with them.
“It was not for the first time that South Korean pilots tried unsuccessfully to prevent Russian aircraft from flying over the neutral waters of the Sea of Japan,” the ministry said.
A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman did not directly address the Russian accusation of reckless behavior, but said that Seoul had never said the Tu-95 bombers had violated its airspace.
China’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said South Korea’s ADIZ was not territorial airspace and that all countries enjoyed freedom of movement in it.
While it is unclear why the military aircraft from Russia and China made such incursions, the Yonhap news agency cited a South Korean military source alluding to a possible joint exercise between the two countries.
China and Russia have in recent years beefed up their joint military training, with the effort culminating in the unprecedented” Vostok 2018 military drills last year — the largest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union. Those exercises saw about 3,200 troops from China join some 300,000 Russian troops for a week of war games in Siberia and the Far East, and over the Arctic and Pacific oceans.
Justin Bronk, an air warfare analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, said the incident was one to watch in the midst of bolstered Sino-Russian military ties.
“Firing several bursts of cannon fire is a significant escalation. The only place you could go from here would be to shoot the aircraft down,” Bronk said. From now on, “it’d be worth watching if there is any change to Russian flights and perhaps Chinese flights in the region. There is increasing cooperation between the Russian and Chinese militaries.”
Still, James Brown, an associate professor at Temple University in Tokyo, noted that it “is common” for Russian aircraft to approach the airspaces of other countries, prompting the scramble of fighters.
“For example, in fiscal 2017, Japanese ASDF jets were scrambled 390 times in order to intercept approaching Russian aircraft,” he said.
“I do not see this as being directly primarily against South Korea or Japan,” he added. “Russia actually has very good relations with South Korea at present and President Moon (Jae-in) has taken a friendly attitude towards Russia. Instead, this is part of Russia’s tense relations with the United States.”
Hostility between the United States and North Korea has long dominated the conversation in the area, and Russia has made sure that its voice is heard on the issues of Pyongyang’s denuclearization and Washington’s military alliance with Seoul.
In the South Korean capital, the South’s top security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, lodged a strong objection with Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia, asking the council to assess the incident and take appropriate action, South Korea’s presidential office said.
“We take a very grave view of this situation and, if it is repeated, we will take even stronger action,” Chung said, according to South Korea’s presidential office.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry summoned Russian Deputy Chief of Mission Maxim Volkov and Chinese Ambassador Qiu Guohong to lodge a stern protest and strongly urge them to prevent a recurrence, said ministry spokesman Kim In-chul.
South Korea scrambled F-15 and F-16 fighter jets in response to the intrusions.
The South Korean jets fired about 360 rounds of ammunition during the incident, an official at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
“The South Korean military took tactical action including dropping flares and firing warning shots,” the Defense Ministry said.
A South Korean defence official said that the Russian aircraft did not respond in any threatening way.
The Russian aircraft left South Korean airspace but then entered it again about 20 minutes later, prompting the South Koreans to fire more warning shots.
The ministry said South Korean warplanes “conducted a normal response” to the incursion, without giving further details.
It was the first time a foreign military plane has violated South Korean airspace since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to South Korean officials.
The former Soviet Union supported North Korea and provided the country with weapons during the Korean War, which killed millions. In 1983, a Soviet air force fighter jet fired an air-to-air missile at a South Korean passenger plane that strayed into Soviet territory, killing all 269 people on board. Relations between Seoul and Moscow gradually improved, and they established diplomatic ties in 1990, a year before the breakup of the Soviet Union.