Pentagon video shows Russian jet dumping fuel on US drone
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Pentagon on Thursday released video of what it said was a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a U.S. Air Force surveillance drone before the warplane clipped the drone's propeller in international airspace, leading to its crash in the Black Sea and raising tensions between Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine.
Poland, meanwhile, said it's giving Ukraine a dozen MiG-29 fighter jets, becoming the first NATO member to fulfill Kyiv's increasingly urgent requests for warplanes.
The U.S. military's declassified 42-second color footage shows a Russian Su-27 approaching the back of the MQ-9 Reaper drone and releasing fuel as it passes, the Pentagon said. Dumping the fuel appeared to be aimed at blinding the drone's optical instruments to drive it from the area.
On a second approach, either the same jet or another Russian fighter that had been shadowing the MQ-9 struck the drone's propeller, damaging a blade, according to the U.S. military, which said it then ditched the unmanned aircraft in the sea.
The video excerpt released by the Pentagon does not show events before or after the apparent fuel-dumping confrontation and does not show the Russian warplane striking the drone.
Russia said its fighters didn't strike the drone and claimed the unmanned aerial vehicle went down after making a sharp maneuver.
Asked Thursday if Russia would try to recover the drone debris, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the decision was up to the military. "If they consider it necessary to do so in the Black Sea for the benefit of our interests and our security, they will do it," he said. Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia's Security Council, said Wednesday that an attempt would be made.
U.S. officials have expressed confidence that nothing of military value would remain from the drone even if Russia managed to retrieve the wreckage. They left open the possibility of trying to recover portions of the downed $32 million aircraft, which they said crashed into waters that were 4,000 to 5,000 feet (1,200 to 1,500 meters) deep, although the U.S. does not have any ships in the area.
Russia and NATO member countries routinely intercept each other's warplanes, but the drone incident marked the first time since the Cold War that a U.S. aircraft went down during such a confrontation, raising concerns it could bring the United States and Russia closer to a direct conflict.
Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about U.S. intelligence flights near the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed.
The top U.S. and Russian defense and military leaders spoke Wednesday about the destruction of the drone, underscoring the event's seriousness.
The calls between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, as well as between Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russian General Staff, were the first since October.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in its report of the call with Austin that Shoigu accused the U.S. of provoking the incident by ignoring flight restrictions the Kremlin had imposed because of its military operations in Ukraine.
The Kremlin argues that by providing weapons to Ukraine and sharing intelligence information with Kyiv, the U.S. and its allies have effectively become engaged in the war, now in its 13th month.
Such U.S. actions "are fraught with escalation of the situation in the Black Sea area," the Defense Ministry said, warning that Moscow "will respond in kind to all provocations."
The MQ-9, which has a 66-foot (20-meter) wingspan, includes a ground control station and satellite equipment. It is capable of carrying munitions, but Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, would not say whether the ditched drone had been armed.
The video's release is the latest example of the Biden administration making public intelligence findings over the course of the war. The administration has said it wants to highlight Russian malicious activity as well as plans for Russian misinformation operations so allies remain clear-eyed about Moscow's intent.
The White House deferred to Austin on the decision to release it, with the Pentagon and President Joe Biden's national security aides agreeing it was important to let the world see what happened, according to an administration official familiar with the decision-making process. The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the deliberations, said it took time to go through the declassification process and insisted the administration was not concerned it would further escalate tensions with Russia.
Because the video does not show the actual collision, some involved in the decision to release the footage wondered whether the Russians would seize on that as proof there was no contact between the fighter jet and the drone, according to another official familiar with the discussions about making it public. Those concerns were overcome when the Pentagon explained that the video showed the immediate aftermath and damage to the drone's propeller, which only could have come from a collision, according to the second official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to disclose the details.