The US has warned Russia against an escalation after the US military said it was forced to crash an unmanned surveillance drone into the Black Sea after a Russian fighter jet intercepted it over international waters and damaged the propeller.
The US European Command said the incident, which occurred at 0603 GMT Tuesday, resulted from “an unsafe and unprofessional intercept” on the part of the Russian aircraft.
The US State Department summoned the Russian ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov, to protest the encounter that took place in waters near Ukraine, which according to the US military, involved two Russian aircraft and a US drone.
Russia’s Defence Ministry rejected the US military’s version of events. The ministry said the drone crashed in the Black Sea near the Crimean Peninsula due to an abrupt manoeuvrer and that it was never hit by a Russian aircraft.
It said Russian jets had been sent to identify an unknown intruder over the Black Sea that threatened to cross into Russian territory.
“The Russian aircraft did not use onboard weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle, and returned safely to their home airfield,” the ministry statement said.
US National Security Council communications director John Kirby later rejected Russia’s version of events, telling broadcaster CNN the US government was considering publishing images of the collision between the drone and the Russian aircraft.
Kirby said that such “inappropriate, unsafe, unprofessional conduct by the Russian pilots” could lead to “miscalculations between [...] two militaries that are operating not obviously in Ukraine together, but certainly in proximity in the region.” “And we don’t want to see this war escalate beyond what it already has done to the Ukrainian people,” he warned.
Russia’s ambassador to the US meanwhile accused Washington of using its drones to collect surveillance data for Ukraine.“What are they doing thousands of miles away from the United States? The answer is obvious - they are collecting intelligence information later used by the Kyiv regime to attack our forces and our territory,” the ambassador said in a statement by Russia’s TASS news agency.
Antonov said the “unacceptable actions of the US military in close proximity to our borders” were a cause for concern.
“We are well aware of the tasks for which such reconnaissance and combat drones are used,” he said.According to the US military, two Russian Su-27 aircraft intercepted the MQ-9 drone as it conducted “routine operations.” The US European Command said that the Su-27s “dumped fuel on and flew in front of” the US aerial vehicle before one of the Russian planes hit the propeller, adding that the decision was then taken to crash the drone in the Black Sea intentionally. Later, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said the drone was no longer manoeuvrable, so US forces had to take it out of the sky and let it fall into the sea. He did not initially comment on whether the aircraft could be recovered.
Ryder said the Russian jet also likely suffered damage.Ukraine’s Air Force has defended the deployment of US reconnaissance drones.
“The Black Sea is not an internal sea of Russia, as they have occupied the Sea of Azov and consider it theirs,” Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuri Ihnat said on TV. The Black Sea is also bordered by NATO members, including Turkey and Romania, which is why the US drones are operating there on a legal basis, he added.