The United States military said a Russian fighter plane clipped a propellor on an unmanned spy drone, causing it to crash Tuesday into the Black Sea. The incident marks the first direct encounter between Russia and the U.S. since Russia attacked and invaded Ukraine over a year ago.
Russia’s defense ministry gave a different version of the incident, and Moscow’s ambassador to Washington said his country “views this incident as a provocation” involving a Russian Su-27 and U.S. MQ-9 drone.
The United States has provided military aid to Ukraine, equaling tens of billions of dollars, and has not become directly engaged in the war; however, it regularly conducts surveillance flights in the area.
In the meantime, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday night that military commanders are unanimously in favor of defending its easternmost frontline, which has been under siege by Russia for months.
“The main focus was on … Bakhmut,” said Zelensky in his nightly video address. “There was a clear position of the entire command — strengthen this sector and destroy the occupiers to the maximum.”
Drone forced to crash, Russian jets carry out “reckless intercept”
Two Russian Su-27 jets carried out what the United States military described as a “reckless intercept” of the American spy drone while surveilling international air space.
According to U.S. military sources, the Russian fighter jets also dumped fuel on the MQ-9, possibly trying to damage or blind it, and flew in front of it using unsafe maneuvers.
After 30 to 40 minutes, at 7:03 a.m. (0604 GMT), one of the Russian jets collided with the drone, which caused it to crash, according to the U.S. military.
According to military sources, neither Russia nor the United States has recovered the drone, and the jet was damaged but was able to land safely.
“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash,” said U.S. Air Force General James Hecker. Hecker oversees the U.S. Air Force in the region.
Russia’s defense ministry denied the U.S.’s version of the incident and that its jet had come into contact with the uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV), which it claimed crashed after “sharp maneuvering.” It maintained that the drone had been detected near the Crimea peninsula, which Moscow had annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
“The Russian fighters did not use their onboard weapons, did not come into contact with the UAV, and returned safely to their home airfield,” said the defense ministry.
Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s Ambassador to Washington, was summoned by the U.S. State Department to discuss the incident over the Black Sea, according to spokesperson Ned Price.
Antonov described his meeting as “constructive,” and the issue of possible “consequences” for Moscow was not raised, according to reports by the RIA state news agency.
“As for us, we do not want any confrontation between the United States and Russia. We are in favor of building pragmatic relations for the benefit of the Russian and American peoples,” said Antonov.