A Russian fighter jet collided with a U.S. military surveillance drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday, forcing U.S. operators to bring down the unmanned craft in international waters and prompting Pentagon officials to blast the Russian pilots’ behavior as “unsafe and unprofessional.”
In an incident likely to further inflame bilateral tensions, Defense Department officials said two Russian Su-27 planes tried to intercept the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone, which was flying in international airspace over the Black Sea. After dumping fuel on the drone in an apparent attempt to disable it, one of the Su-27 aircraft struck the drone’s propeller, forcing American crews to bring down the craft at sea.
President Biden was briefed on the matter, officials said. The Kremlin denied that its planes struck the U.S. drone or were otherwise involved in its downing.
Neither the U.S. nor Russia had recovered the wreckage as of Tuesday afternoon, Pentagon officials said. Military analysts said it is imperative for American personnel to find and retrieve the drone before the Russians do.
Although the U.S. and its allies have provided massive financial and military support to Ukraine in its fight to repel Russian invaders, this was thought to be the first direct clash involving U.S. and Russian military assets since the invasion began in February 2022.
Outraged lawmakers on Capitol Hill warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin would seize on the midair collision to try to intimidate the U.S. and bully the Biden administration into backing away from its military support for Kyiv.
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“This brazen act by Russian pilots against an American aircraft flying in international airspace makes clear that Vladimir Putin is an adversary,” said Sen. Roger F. Wicker of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This incident should serve as a wake-up call to isolationists in the United States that it is in our national interest to treat Putin as the threat he truly is.”
Some defense analysts said the odds of direct confrontations between the U.S. and Russia grow likelier with each day that passes in the Russia-Ukraine war.
There is little doubt that the incident Tuesday will increase tensions between Washington and Moscow. State Department officials said the administration had summoned Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov to lodge a formal protest.
As described by U.S. officials, the dramatic scene over the Black Sea began with Russian fighter jets harassing the American drone, which has happened repeatedly in the past. Pentagon officials said the Russian jets flew in the vicinity of the drone for at least 30 minutes and the two sides did not appear to have any communication.
Before the collision, “the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” U.S. officials said, and the conduct of the Su-27s demonstrates an apparent “lack of competence.” Western officials have cast the Russian military as largely inept throughout its 13-month-old campaign in Ukraine.
“Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9,” said Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa. “In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”
The general added, “U.S. and allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace, and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and safely.”
The MQ-9 can carry munitions, but The New York Times, citing senior military officials, reported that the craft was unarmed. The drone appeared to be conducting a routine surveillance mission.
Moscow has long complained about such U.S. flights in the Black Sea region, particularly off the coast of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, responding on Twitter, denied that the Russian Su-27s had fired on or come into contact with the American drone.
“As a result of a sharp maneuver, the MQ-9 drone went into uncontrollable flight with a loss of altitude and crashed into water,” the Russian Defense Ministry said. “The Russian fighters didn’t use their weapons or impact the unmanned aerial vehicle, and they safely returned to their base.”
U.S. officials said the incident is the latest in a string of unsafe, unprofessional actions in the Black Sea region. The sea is a vital area for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
State Department spokesman Ned Price described the incident as a “brazen violation of international law.”
White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters that it was not uncommon for Russian military planes to shadow U.S. drones over the Black Sea, but “this one is noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional it was.”
The Defense Department’s European Command said that “these aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation.”
Samuel Charap, a Russia analyst with the Rand Corp. think tank, said it appeared the Russian jets had been dispatched to defend an expansive claim to airspace that the Kremlin has tried to enforce since the Ukraine operation began.
“Based on the findings of our study on Russian coercive signaling, I would bet the MQ-9 was operating in an area that was of particular military significance to Moscow,” Mr. Charap said on Twitter.
Based on past practice, he said, “The Russians would have had a clear military reason for what they did — this wasn’t a random act of lashing out. Russian pilots would have been following instructions from ground control, not freelancing.”
Some specialists say escalation grows more likely every day and the administration should push for peace between Russia and Ukraine as soon as possible.
“The longer the war continues with heavy U.S. backing for Ukraine, the more likely escalation between nuclear superpowers is. And it is common sense to worry about even a low risk of a catastrophe of that magnitude,” said Benjamin Friedman, policy director at the think tank Defense Priorities, which advocates for a more restrained U.S. military role abroad.
“It is time for the U.S. policy in Ukraine to serve realistic goals consonant with U.S. interests. Russia has suffered grievously for its aggression, and Ukraine’s ability to regain all its territory by force is deeply dubious,” Mr. Friedman said in comments circulated to reporters.
Close encounters between Russian and U.S. military assets are relatively common. Last month, the U.S. intercepted Russian aircraft flying near a buffer zone off the coast of Alaska.
Direct contact is exceedingly rare. One of the most memorable recent examples was the collision of U.S. and Russian military vehicles in Syria in August 2020. Video posted to social media appeared to show a Russian military vehicle sideswiping an American vehicle while at least two Russian helicopters flew overhead.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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