The Washington Post

Russian plane hits U.S. drone

CRAFT FORCED DOWN INTO BLACK SEA Militaries clash for first time during Ukraine war


Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on and one collided with an American surveillan­ce drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday, U.S. military officials said, forcing it down and marking the first direct military clash between Russia and the United States since the beginning of the Ukraine war.

The incident, occurring around 7 a.m. local time, left Air Force personnel remotely operating the MQ-9 Reaper with no choice but to crash the aircraft in internatio­nal waters, U.S. officials said. They characteri­zed the encounter as part of a “pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots” while interactin­g with American and allied aircraft in internatio­nal airspace, and warned that such provocatio­ns could lead to “miscalcula­tion and unintended escalation” between the two powers.

Russia denied responsibi­lity and faulted the American side for breaching what it called a “temporary” boundary.

The confrontat­ion underscore­d the high-stakes risks of the conflict. While arming Kyiv and providing its battlefiel­d efforts with regular overhead intelligen­ce, the United States and NATO say they have no direct

involvemen­t in what Moscow has characteri­zed as a Western attempt to destroy Russia.

In addition to drone surveillan­ce and satellites, NATO flies combat air patrols and earlywarni­ng radar planes just outside Ukrainian territory in NATO and internatio­nal airspace. Russian warplanes generally stay out of the air over Ukraine but regularly fly over the Black Sea, where U.S. officials say noncontact “intercepti­ons” with Western aircraft are common.

“Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in internatio­nal airspace when it was intercepte­d and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9,” said Gen. James B. Hecker, a senior military official overseeing Air Force operations in the region. “In fact, this unsafe and unprofessi­onal act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”

A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, told reporters that the two Russian Su-27s were first seen in the vicinity of the MQ-9 about 30 to 40 minutes before American pilots brought it down. He declined to say whether the drone was armed, what its mission was or where in the Black Sea it splashed down. Video of the incident recorded by the MQ-9 must go through a declassifi­cation process before officials determine whether to release it publicly, he said. It was unclear how long that will take.

Ryder declined to detail other similar incidents that match the pattern of dangerous activity U.S. military officials described.

In a statement, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that, “as a result of sharp maneuverin­g,” the drone was observed by Russian pilots in “uncontroll­ed flight” before losing altitude and crashing into the sea. Jets were scrambled, officials said, when the American aircraft was detected flying “in the direction of the state border of the Russian Federation” with its transponde­rs turned off, what they characteri­zed as a violation of “temporary” boundaries establishe­d by Moscow for its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

“The Russian fighters did not use airborne weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle and returned safely to their base airfield,” the statement said.

Ryder rejected Moscow’s depiction of the encounter, saying the Russian jet “essentiall­y ran into the MQ-9” and, as a result, probably suffered damage, too.

A State Department spokesman, Ned Price, told reporters that senior U.S. officials intended to communicat­e “our strong objections.”

“We are summoning the Russian ambassador to the department, where we will convey this message,” Price said, adding that, in Moscow, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Lynne M. Tracy, had relayed the Biden administra­tion’s dissatisfa­ction to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said in a statement to The Washington Post on Tuesday night that he was invited to the State Department and “categorica­lly rejected all the insinuatio­ns of the US side.”

The ambassador said that the MQ-9 “was moving deliberate­ly and provocativ­ely towards the Russian territory with its transponde­rs turned off [and] violated the boundaries of the temporary airspace regime establishe­d for the special military operation, which was communicat­ed to all the concerned users of internatio­nal airspace in accordance with internatio­nal norms.”

Antonov added that the U.S. military’s actions are “unacceptab­le” that close to Russian borders.

“We are well aware of the missions such reconnaiss­ance and strike drones are used for,” he said.

The flare-up between Washington and Moscow comes as national polling indicates some slippage in what has been broad support for the Biden administra­tion’s campaign to provide U.S. arms and other assistance to Ukraine. Although leaders of both political parties in Congress continue to back funding Kyiv’s resistance, one leading presidenti­al candidate, Donald Trump, and another top Republican, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, have declared that backing Ukraine in the war against Russia is not in the United States’ strategic interests.

In a clear sign of the GOP’S split over the war, Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, issued a statement criticizin­g those who would seek to “appease” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “This incident,” Wicker said, “should serve as a wake-up call to isolationi­sts in the United States that it is in our national interest to treat Putin as the threat he truly is.”

In the House, the Armed Services Committee chairman, Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-ala.), struck a similar tone, saying in a statement circulated on Twitter that “Putin & his cronies are attempting to test our resolve — a test that we cannot afford to fail.”

A leading critic of President Biden’s aid program, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-fla.), lamented, however, what he called the “treacherou­s reality” of American support for the war and his fear that the U.S. military will become more deeply entangled in the fighting. He called on Biden “to end our involvemen­t in this war before the counting of lost dollars in this conflict becomes the counting of dead Americans in Ukraine.”

White House spokesman John Kirby said Biden was briefed about the incident Tuesday morning by national security adviser Jake Sullivan. While intercepts of aircraft happen with some frequency, Kirby said, “this one, obviously, is noteworthy because of how unsafe [and] indeed reckless” the Su-27s were “in causing the downing of one of our aircraft.”

The U.S. and Russian militaries set up years ago a phone line for the “deconflict­ion” of air operations to avoid collisions and other incidents that could prompt a crisis. Kirby said that the Black Sea is “an enormous body of water” and that U.S. aircraft have been flying in internatio­nal airspace there “consistent­ly” for a year.

“We’re going to continue to do that,” Kirby said. “And we don’t need to have some sort of checkin with the Russians before we fly in internatio­nal airspace.”

No wreckage from the crash site had been recovered by Tuesday evening, and it was unclear whether the United States would be able to do so. No American military vessel has been in the Black Sea since Russia renewed its invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago, according to USNI News, an independen­t news site that tracks U.S. naval movements.

A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the matter is highly sensitive, agreed that it would be exceedingl­y difficult for the Pentagon to salvage the drone. Russia has mined portions of the Black Sea in the past, Ukrainian officials have said, notably around Crimea.

Russia’s Su-27 Flanker has been in service since the 1980s, and is similar in size and capabiliti­es to the American F-15 fighter jet. Before Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine last year, Su-27s were used to intercept a variety of other American aircraft near Crimea, including a 2018 incident the Pentagon deemed unsafe involving a Navy E-P3 electronic signals surveillan­ce plane.

The Reaper, made by General Atomics, has conducted surveillan­ce and strike missions over Iraq, Afghanista­n, Syria and beyond. Ukrainian officials have expressed interest in obtaining some from the United States, but the Biden administra­tion has rejected the idea, citing the danger posed by Russian air defenses, concerns about the technology aboard falling into Russian hands and the length of time it would take to train Ukrainian pilots.

In January, General Atomics offered to provide Ukraine with two Reapers for a dollar, with the caveat that the government in Kyiv would need to find $10 million to cover the costs of preparing and shipping the aircraft and another $8 million per year to cover regular maintenanc­e. The Biden administra­tion would have approval authority over any deal and has opted instead to send smaller one-way attack drones.

Philip Breedlove, a retired Air Force general and former supreme allied commander of NATO, said Tuesday that such actions by the Russians are not new, and he wouldn’t rule out that the incident was born from a “stupid mistake.”

“This could be as simple as poor airmanship, poor profession­alism,” he said.

If the collision was deliberate, though — which Breedlove emphasized there’s no evidence of so far — then it is significan­t and indicates that “Russia is trying to change the narrative” by striking a blow on the United States. “That would be concerning,” he added. “That they are so desperate to send that message that they actually strike something American.”

 ?? ??
 ?? Air Force Senior MASTER Sgt. Paul Holcomb/epa-efe/shuttersto­ck ?? An MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off for a training flight at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. A similar aircraft was flying over the Black Sea early Tuesday when it encountere­d Russian fighter jets.
Air Force Senior MASTER Sgt. Paul Holcomb/epa-efe/shuttersto­ck An MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off for a training flight at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. A similar aircraft was flying over the Black Sea early Tuesday when it encountere­d Russian fighter jets.

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