The Reaper drone and two Russian Su-27 aircraft were flying over international waters over the Black Sea on Tuesday when one of the Russian jets deliberately flew in front of the unmanned drone and dumped fuel on it several times, according to a statement from US European Command.
The aircraft then collided with the drone’s propeller, prompting US forces to bring the MQ-9 drone down in international waters. The Russian aircraft flew “in the vicinity” of the drone for 30 to 40 minutes before colliding shortly after 7 a.m. Central European Time, according to Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder.
“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 US Air Forces Europe and Africa.
The incident is the first direct physical contact between Russian and US military aircraft since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine just over a year ago, and it is likely to escalate tensions between the two countries, with the US calling Russia’s actions “reckless, environmentally unsound, and unprofessional.”
After being summoned to the State Department following the downing of the drone, Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov stated that Russia does not want “confrontation” between his country and the United States.
“We prefer not to create a situation where we can face unintended clashes or unintended incidents between the Russian Federation and the United States,” Antonov said.
National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby said the US has not recovered the downed drone from the Black Sea, warning, “I’m not sure we are going to be able to recover it.”
“It has not been recovered, and I doubt we will be able to recover it.” I mean, where it fell into the Black Sea is in very deep water, so we’re still determining whether any kind of recovery effort can be mounted. “There might not be,” Kirby said on CNN This Morning on Wednesday.
‘Dangerous, unprofessional, and reckless.’
Antonov, who was inside the State Department for about 30 minutes, said Assistant Secretary Karen Donfried conveyed the United States’ concerns about the incident and that they “exchanged remarks on this issue because we have some differences.”
“It seems to me that it was a constructive conversation on this issue. I have heard her remarks, I hope that she has understood what I have mentioned,” Antonov said in response to a question.
He also asserted that Russia “had informed about this space that had been identified as a zone for special military operations.”
“We have warned not to enter, not to penetrate,” he said, when asked how the US would react if a Russian drone approached New York or San Francisco.
Antonov reiterated the Russian Ministry of Defense’s denial of the incident. In an earlier statement, they denied that the Russian jet had come into contact with the drone, saying that the fighter jets “scrambled to identify the intruder” after detecting it over the Black Sea, and that the drone “went into an unguided flight with a loss of altitude.”
“The drone flew with its transponders off, violating the boundaries of the temporary airspace regime established for the special military operation, communicated to all users of international airspace, and published in accordance with international standards,” the ministry said.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov Wednesday said relations between Russia and the US are at their “lowest point” and in a “deplorable state.”
According to Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin was briefed on the incident, but no high-level contact occurred between Moscow and Washington.
“Russia did not refuse constructive dialogue, and does not refuse it now,” Peskov added.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan briefed President Joe Biden on the incident on Tuesday morning, Kirby said on Tuesday afternoon. According to Ryder, Defense Department officials “have not specifically spoken to Russian authorities” about the incident.
Price said separately that the US has “engaged at high levels with our allies and partners” to brief them on the incident. He added that the US was “not in a position to speak to what the Russians intended to do” with the maneuvers, but that ultimately the intent mattered less than “what actually transpired.”
Kirby said it was “not uncommon” for Russian aircraft to intercept US aircraft over the Black Sea, and said there had been other intercepts in recent weeks.
But he said the episode Tuesday was unique in how “unsafe, unprofessional and reckless” the Russian actions were.
According to Ryder, the US Defense Department is currently working to declassify imagery from the incident. He also stated that the downed drone had not been recovered by Russia.
“The Lead” on Tuesday, Kirby stated that the US has “taken steps to protect our equities with respect to that particular drone.”
“Obviously, we don’t want anyone else getting their hands on it,” Kirby said. He went on to say that the United States rejects Russia’s denial of responsibility, and that people should “take everything the Russians say about what they’re doing in and around Ukraine with a huge grain of salt.”
Since before the start of the war, the US has been flying Reaper spy drones over the Black Sea, monitoring the area. According to the Air Force, Reaper drones can fly as high as 50,000 feet and have sensors and capabilities to gather intelligence and perform reconnaissance for extended periods of time, making it an ideal platform for tracking movements on the battlefield and in the Black Sea.