South Korea accuses Russia of ‘distortion of the facts’ over mid-air confrontation

Posted at 3:33 AM, Jul 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-24 07:34:13-04

South Korea has accused Russia of a “distortion of the facts,” amid a deepening diplomatic rift over an alleged violation of airspace.

On Tuesday, South Korea claimed a Russian A-50 military aircraft flew over territory claimed by Seoul, saying its fighter jets had fired 360 warning shots at the plane during its two alleged incursions.

Russia has denied that its aircraft violated South Korean airspace, but in a statement Wednesday morning, Seoul claimed Moscow’s military attache had earlier said the alleged incursion was due to a “mechanical malfunction” and apologized.

“If the aircraft followed the originally planned path, this situation wouldn’t have happened. Russia respects international law as well as South Korean law,” the attache allegedly said, according to the South Koreans.

But by Wednesday afternoon, Seoul said it had received an official letter from the Kremlin restating that Russia’s military aircraft had not crossed into South Korea’s airspace.

“Russia’s claim is not only a distortion of the facts but also a contradiction to the expression of regret and the position that they will make the effort for a precise investigation … which were delivered via diplomatic channels yesterday,” South Korea’s Ministry of Defense said.

Until Tuesday, Russia and South Korea had rarely come into conflict in a region known for its territorial disputes and historic animosities.

Both Russia and China have said they were holding their “first joint strategic air patrol in northeast Asia” on Tuesday, which Beijing said “strictly abided” by international laws.

“This operation was part of the annual cooperation plan between Chinese and Russian militaries and did not target any third party,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said Wednesday.

Mid-air standoff

Warplanes from four countries were involved in a standoff early Tuesday morning over the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, which led to stern denunciations and calls for apologies from multiple countries.

According to Moscow and Beijing, two Russian Tu-95 bombers and two Chinese H-6 bombers flew over the area early Tuesday morning as part of a joint patrol.

They were joined, later in the morning, by an unarmed Russian A-50 command and control plane, which Japan and South Korea said then flew over islands claimed by both countries.

The rocky islands are known as Dokdo Islands to South Korea and as Takeshima in Japan. Japan and South Korea claim the islands as their own.

South Korea’s military said it sent out 30 warnings to the Russian A-50 but received no response.

In response, Seoul and Tokyo scrambled fighter jets to intercept the Russian and Chinese warplanes, warning them they had entered their country’s territory.

It isn’t known how close Japan’s aircraft got, but the South Korean F-15 and KF-16 fighter jets flew close enough to fire their weapons in front of the Russian A-50, according to Seoul.

South Korea’s military claimed they fired 360 warning shots ahead of the Russian aircraft, 80 during the first violation and 280 during the second, using 20mm weapons.

After Seoul announced the incident, Russia’s military strongly denied that it had breached South Korea’s airspace in a series of statements and articles in state media. Moscow claimed the bombers and A-50 had been taking part in exercises over “neutral waters.”

But later in the afternoon, Japan’s government broadly confirmed South Korea’s version of events, saying the A-50 had violated the airspace over the islands and that Tokyo had scrambled fighters in response.

“We took measures against the invasion,” said a spokesman for Japan’s Ministry of Defense.

Peter Layton, a fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute and former Royal Australian Air Force pilot, said Russia’s denials of violating South Korean airspace didn’t jibe with data provided by Japan on the A-50s flight path, which showed it maneuvering around the islands.

“The A-50 is a radar-equipped surveillance aircraft,” he said. “Rocky islands show up real well on radar. They are pretty much the perfect radar reflector … They knew how far they were from them clearly,” Layton said.