"Playing with fire"? Russia defends close fly-bys of U.S. warship

WASHINGTON -- Russia says its warplanes respected all safety rules when they buzzed a United States Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea.

The Pentagon released dramatic video of the jets flying extremely close to the ship more than 30 times over two days. The Obama administration calls the "simulated attack" passes unsafe.

The U.S. will file a diplomatic protest, but Russia will have made its point; it resents the U.S. operating so close to Russian territory and intends to push back, reports CBS News correspondent David Martin.

The Russian planes raced by the U.S. Navy destroyer low and fast, over and over. Pictures taken from onboard the ship show just how dangerously close they came during some of their passes.

They were flying what the commander of the USS Donald Cook described as a "simulated attack profile," although they carried no weapons under the wings -- a total of 31 runs over two days.

On Monday, the Cook was preparing to conduct helicopter flight operations in the Baltic Sea, in international water 70 miles off the coast of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

Russian defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Thursday the Su-24 fighter jet pilots saw the ship and then turned back "while using all measures of precaution."

Konashenkov claimed that the ministry was baffled by what he described as the "distressed reaction of our American counterparts."

"The principle of freedom of navigation for the U.S. destroyer, which is staying in close proximity to a Russian naval base in the Baltic Sea, does at all not cancel the principle of freedom of flight for Russian aircraft," Konashenkov said.

But Evelyn Farkas, a former Russian policy expert for the Pentagon, told CBS News the fly-bys were undeniably "dangerous behavior."

"They're playing with fire here," she said. "I'm sure that U.S. ships and other non-Russian ships have been just as close in the past. And even if they haven't, again, they're in international waters; there's nothing provocative about what we're doing. Unlike the Russians, we actually telegraph very transparently what we're doing."

A pair of Russian attack jets flew 20 passes on the ship Monday, coming as close as 1,000 yards at an altitude of 100 feet, ignoring radio calls from the Cook and forcing the ship to cancel flight operations.

On Tuesday, a Russian helicopter circled the Cook, taking photographs, followed by another pair of attack jets that showed up and buzzed the Cook 11 times - this time coming within an estimated 30 feet of the ship.

This was the latest and most striking in a series of incidents over the past two years in which Russian aircraft have challenged NATO ships and planes.

"So we clearly need to send a signal to the Russians that this is unacceptable, that this is unprofessional, risky behavior," Farkas said. "Frankly, they should be embarrassed by the behavior of their pilots."

U.S. officials believe the actions violated an agreement signed in the 1970's with the Soviet Union, which remains in force with Russia and specifically prohibits running simulated attack profiles against ships.