A Russian warplane forced down a US drone over the Black Sea, the US says, another reminder of the potential escalation risks tied to the Ukraine war.
According to US officials, an MQ-9 drone was conducting “routine” reconnaissance operations at about 7 am local time Tuesday over international waters, when it was intercepted by Russian jets. The aircraft collided with the drone, which damaged its propeller, forcing the US to bring down the drone. “This unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash,” Gen. James B. Hecker, the commander of the US Air Force in Europe, said in a statement Tuesday.
On Thursday, the United States European Command released a short video of the encounter between the Russian Su-27 jet and the US drone. The clip shows a Russian jet heading toward the drone, dumping what is apparently jet fuel over the aerial vehicle. It then shows another approach by a Russian Su-27 jet, also dumping fuel. The footage cuts out in the moment of the apparent collision, but goes back online showing the drone propeller bent and damaged. According to a statement from US European Command, after the Russian plane hit, the footage cut out for 60 seconds.
Russia has been denying its aircraft collided with the drone, with the Russian Ministry of Defense saying that the US drone “sharply maneuvered,” and then crashed after an encounter with Russian jets near Crimea, which Russia considers part of its territory — all in all, a pretty different take on the incident.
The collision, if confirmed, would be the first physical military contact between Russia and the US since the start of the Ukraine war. John Kirby, White House National Security Council chief spokesperson, said Thursday that it is “not clear the pilots intended to strike” the drone.
Still, this kind of mishap is a sign of the larger geopolitical tensions undergirding that conflict. Russia is pressing forward with its offensive, still trying to take Ukrainian territory. At the same time, the United States and its allies are providing Kyiv with economic and security aid that make it possible for Ukraine to fight the war, and potentially deter Russia’s advance and reclaim its territory. The West’s deep involvement, and Russia’s uncompromising focus on pushing ahead with its invasion, are ultimately putting two nuclear superpowers at odds.
The day before the US released the footage, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had a rare call with his Russian counterpart over the incident, a sign that the US sought to deescalate tensions. Still, Austin called the encounter between the US and Russian aircraft “dangerous and reckless.”
The US previously said it would continue to conduct missions in international airspace, and called on Russia to conduct itself safely. “This incident follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with U.S. and Allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea. These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation,” the statement read.
When asked for more information on those alleged previous Russian actions, Megan A. Crusher, public affairs officer for US Air Forces in Europe, said Tuesday they were “gathering details” and would be in touch with additional information.
The White House and the Pentagon also emphasized this week that intercepts with Russian aircraft were not uncommon occurrences, either — that is, Russian jets just want to see what’s flying around up there. Ryder emphasized that the vast majority of these intercepts are safe and professional; what’s different this time is that the Russian jet collided with the US drone and damaged it. Pentagon press secretary Gen. Pat Ryder also said Tuesday that the US drone was flying over a “busy and international waterway” and this was not an unusual mission for the US, especially this past year.
The Russian Navy has effectively blockaded the Black Sea, choking off Ukraine’s ports, and allowing just limited grain to flow through as part of a UN-brokered deal. Still, US officials have insisted the unmanned aircraft was in international airspace and “well clear” of Ukraine.
The United States and Russia have had close calls before, including in Syria, where US and Russian jets had midair near misses. As a result, Washington and Moscow set up a “deconfliction” line in Syria, to communicate and avoid other miscalculations. At the start of the Ukraine war, Russia and the US again maintained such a deconfliction line to avoid the potential for similar miscues that could push the two nuclear powers into a more direct confrontation. As of November, it has only been used once, according to reports. Crusher, with US Air Forces in Europe, confirmed to Vox that, ahead of the Russian collision, “no inbound calls to or outbound calls from the deconfliction line were made regarding this incident.”
Russia has since said that it would try to recover the drone, saying it is the “prerogative” of its military. US officials are reportedly unclear if they can even recover the drone, given that it’s at the bottom of the sea somewhere, in potentially deep waters.
The downing of the drone is just another reminder of how the instability in Ukraine perpetually threatens to spill over, from either an apparent blunder or a provocation. In November, an errant missile from a Ukrainian air defense system landed in Poland, killing two. This aircraft collision again shows the dangerous balancing act between Moscow and Washington, and how one miscalculation or ill-timed move carries with it the risk of the conflict spreading beyond Ukraine.
Update, March 16, 1 pm ET: This story, originally published March 14, has been updated to include video footage of the drone collision and additional comments from US officials.