Los Angeles Times

U.S., Russia defense chiefs discuss Reaper drone crash


WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said he spoke to his Russian counterpar­t on Wednesday about the destructio­n of a U.S. drone over the Black Sea, which had brought the two countries closest to direct conflict since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago. It was the first call between Austin and Defense Secretary Sergei Shoigu since October.

“I just got off the phone with my Russian counterpar­t, Minister Shoigu,” Austin said at a Pentagon news briefing. “As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s important that great powers be models of transparen­cy and communicat­ion, and the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever internatio­nal law allows.”

The U.S. military said it ditched the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in the sea after a Russian fighter jet struck its propeller while it was flying in internatio­nal airspace. Russia has denied that it caused the incident. The U.S. has said it was working on declassify­ing surveillan­ce footage from the drone that would show Tuesday’s crash.

That Austin and Shoigu were talking underscore­d the seriousnes­s of the encounter over the Black Sea. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, contact between U.S. and Russian military leaders has been limited, with Russian officials refusing to take U.S. military calls in the early months of the war.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he also planned to talk to his Russian counterpar­t, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the military’s General Staff.

Gerasimov was named the new commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine in January and its previous commander demoted in an apparent sign of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dissatisfa­ction with the state of the war, which has been stalemated.

Questions remained as to whether Russia meant to down the drone, even though the moments that led up to its crash were “intentiona­l,” Milley said.

“We know that the intercept was intentiona­l. We know that the aggressive behavior was intentiona­l,” he said. However, whether the collision was intentiona­l was still unclear, he told reporters at the briefing.

Milley said the drone probably sank in waters that were 4,000 to 5,000 feet deep.

If the call between Austin and Shoigu was de-escalatory in private, it was not apparent from Russia’s public statements.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters earlier Wednesday that Russia has declared certain areas of the Black Sea off limits to any aerial traffic during the war and suggested the U.S. was trying to provoke an escalation through the flights.

The drone crashed near Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014 and illegally annexed.

Austin and Shoigu first spoke in May about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the time it was the highest level U.S.-Russian contact of the war.

In October, they spoke twice in three days as the threat of an escalation was high. Shoigu had accused Ukraine of planning to use a “dirty bomb,” a claim that was strongly rejected by U.S. and Western allies, who accused Russia of seeking a false pretext to justify further escalation, potentiall­y including the use of a tactical nuclear weapon.

The downed $32-million U.S. drone, which contains sensitive technology, has not been recovered.

 ?? A. Caballero-Reynolds Pool ?? DEFENSE Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III last spoke with his Russian counterpar­t in October.
A. Caballero-Reynolds Pool DEFENSE Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III last spoke with his Russian counterpar­t in October.

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