A top U.S. military commander accused the Russian air force of encouraging its pilots to engage in "buffoonery in the air," raising the risk of accidents or even conflict in Syria.
Lieutenant General Alexus Grynkewich, the combined forces air component commander for U.S. Central Command, told reporters Wednesday Russian jets continue to violate deconfliction protocols in Syria multiple times a day, putting U.S. forces at risk.
And despite previous warnings from the United States, Grynkewich said Russia’s aggressiveness seems to be worsening.
"We've had instances as recently as just earlier this morning, in Syria time, where a Russian aircraft came into our airspace," he told reporters during a virtual briefing.
"We had instances yesterday and we had instances the day before," Grynkewich added, saying U.S. forces in Syria have seen as many as three to four such incursions in a single day by Russian jets carrying a full complement of air-to-ground munitions and bombs.
This is not the first time that Grynkewich has warned about Russia’s risky maneuvers over Syria.
The CENTCOM air components commander told NBC News this past March that there had been a substantial increase in Russian flyovers of U.S. forces.
Grynkewich also echoed his concerns last week during a virtual summit, accusing Russia of seeking to pressure the U.S. in Syria despite CENTCOM efforts to deescalate tensions.
A VOA query to the Russian Embassy in Washington about the accusations was not immediately answered.
The U.S. last week deployed stealth fighter jets, F-22 Raptors from Langley Air Force Base in the U.S., to the Middle East to counter Russia’s actions.
In a statement, CENTCOM described the F-22 as “the best fifth-generation fighter in the world,” adding that the deployment was part of a “multifaceted show” of strength.
But Grynkewich on Wednesday warned he was bracing for Russia’s actions to become worse, pointing to how Russian leaders rewarded a fighter pilot who collided with a U.S. drone over the Black Sea in March.
“Fighter pilots that are deployed now into Syria from Russia will see that they're rewarded for this kind of behavior,” Grynkewich said.
“The pilot didn't intend to do it. You can see from the video,” he said. “Anytime you have an air force that has fallen so low on the professional ladder, that they're giving medals for buffoonery in the air, you've really got to wonder what they're thinking.”
The CENTCOM air forces commander also cautioned that Russia’s focus on trying to provoke the U.S., instead of maintaining its focus on counterterrorism, was benefiting the Islamic State terror group.
The terror group is “down but not out,” Grynkewich said, warning the group’s fighters have a “fair amount of freedom of action” in areas under the control of the Russians or the Syrian regime.
“They are running training camps and they're building up their capabilities because the Russians in the regime are either incapable or unwilling to put pressure on ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the group. “They're letting the ISIS threat grow right under their nose."
The U.S. has about 900 troops in Syria to combat the threat from IS.
Intelligence estimates by United Nations member states shared in a report earlier this year indicate the terror group has about 2,500 to 3,500 fighters across Syria and Iraq.