The Washington Post

Pentagon rejects Kremlin’s air claims

Downing of U.S. drone could escalate into direct conflict, both sides warn


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday that the U.S. military would “continue to fly and operate wherever internatio­nal law allows,” rejecting Moscow’s claim of a self-declared exclusion zone over extended parts of the Black Sea the day after a U.S. drone was downed following an encounter there with Russian warplanes.

The Kremlin said it would try to retrieve the wreckage of the surveillan­ce drone, which the Biden administra­tion said was crashed in internatio­nal waters by its operators after a “reckless” Russian pilot, perhaps unintentio­nally, caused a collision and rendered it unflyable. Russia denied the assertion and said the drone’s presence in the area a day earlier proved that the U.S. military was “directly participat­ing” in the Ukraine war.

The controvers­y, the first known altercatio­n between U.S. and Russian forces since that conflict began, has further roiled what’s become a dangerousl­y fraught relationsh­ip between the superpower­s. On Wednesday, it led Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to call their Russian counterpar­ts in the first contacts between the two militaries in months. But there was no indication they had come to agreement on what happened or measures to avoid it in the future, leaving open the possibilit­y of further


Instead, both sides said the incident had the potential to escalate into a direct conflict. “That’s why I believe it’s important to keep the lines of communicat­ion open,” Austin said. “I think that will help to prevent miscalcula­tion going forward.”

Milley called the clash part of a recent pattern of behavior by the Russians that also included aggressive acts toward aircraft from Britain and other nations. “We have to figure out exactly what the way ahead is,” he said, speaking with Austin at a news conference following a virtual meeting of the group of more than 50 nations aiding Ukraine’s war against Russia’s invading forces.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a Russian television interviewe­r that “any incidents that provoke a clash between two superpower­s, two nuclear powers, the largest ones in the world, always present very serious risks.” The Americans, he said, “cannot but understand this.”

The confrontat­ion began early Tuesday morning, when two Russian fighter jets approached the drone, which had been launched from Romania by U.S. personnel stationed there. After repeatedly dumping fuel on the U.S. aircraft, one of the jets collided with the propeller on the rear of the drone, the Pentagon maintains.

A U.S. defense official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains highly sensitive, said that Air Force personnel brought the badly disabled, unarmed aircraft down approximat­ely 56 nautical miles southwest of Crimea’s southern tip. The peninsula, which the Kremlin illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, is

home to the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet and an array of other military assets. Ukrainian leaders, having vowed to retake the strategica­lly important landmass, have carried out a handful of attacks there.

A Russian statement issued Tuesday after the U.S. officials disclosed the incident said that the drone was flying with its transponde­r turned off and “in violation of the boundaries of the temporary airspace use area, defined in order to carry out the special military operation, which has been conveyed to all airspace users and published in accordance to the internatio­nal norms.” The Kremlin, reluctant to acknowledg­e how poorly its military has performed in Ukraine, often refers to its invasion as a “special” operation.

Under internatio­nal law, territoria­l waters extend 12 miles from shore. There is no “internatio­nal norm” governing the unilateral declaratio­n of exclusive airspace and maritime zones beyond recognized limits in times of conflict, and the subject has been historical­ly controvers­ial.

A second U.S. defense official disputed every aspect of the Russian statement, saying that “the MQ-9 Reaper was flying with its transponde­r on, squawking loud and clear, and was flying lawfully in internatio­nal airspace approximat­ely 50 miles from the Crimean coast in the Black Sea when it was unsafely and unprofessi­onally intercepte­d by the Russians. The only party in this incident violating internatio­nal norms were the Russian pilots who intercepte­d and damaged the U.S. aircraft.”

Russia’s initial intercept of the aircraft in internatio­nal airspace was deliberate, Milley said, characteri­zing the aggressive behavior of its fighter pilots as “very unprofessi­onal and unsafe.” But he said he was “not so sure” that one Russian pilot had intended to clip the drone propeller, saying “we’re not positive of that yet.”

“I believe at this point, we should investigat­e this incident and move on from there,” Milley said. “But we will continue to exercise our rights in internatio­nal airspace.”

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. military “routinely operated” in the Black Sea region before the invasion of the Ukraine,” and it “will continue to operate in the Black Sea region in the future.” He did not say if manned U.S. aircraft have flown over the Black Sea throughout the last year.

“The Black Sea is a critical internatio­nal seaway supporting many of our NATO Allies, including Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, and does not belong to any one country,” Ryder said.

Amid the escalating tensions, attention focused on what would happen to the wreckage of the drone, and the sophistica­ted technology aboard it.

“I don’t know if we can get them or not,” Kremlin Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said of the drone fragments, “but it has to be done, and we’ll surely engage in it. I hope for success, of course.” He added that the presence of the MQ-9 Reaper drone proved the U.S. military was participat­ing in the war.

Russian Foreign Intelligen­ce Service Director Sergei Naryshkin said there were “technical possibilit­ies” for Russia to retrieve fragments of the downed drone, and that the United States was already “very actively” performing reconnaiss­ance in the region, “using all means in terms of space, visual reconnaiss­ance and radio intelligen­ce,” according to Russia’s Interfax news service.

“We know it quite in detail and understand what kind of goals in connection with intelligen­ce activities and the use of technical devices the U.S. has, and we are trying to identify those sites that interest them the most,” Naryshkin said.

U.S. officials, while arming Ukraine and providing intelligen­ce, have rejected Russian charges of direct U.S. involvemen­t and did so again on Wednesday.

Speaking with the media during a visit to Ethiopia’s capital, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to address Patrushev’s assertions, saying the incident is being investigat­ed and that “we’ll look to the investigat­ion to draw any conclusion­s about what the intent might’ve been.”

Milley, at the news conference, said that he was confident nothing of importance remained on the drone, and said that “we know where [the debris] is.” He said the drone had crashed in 4,000 to 5,000 feet of water, a depth where “any recovery operation is difficult.”

Entrance into the Black Sea of warships that are not home-based there is banned during wartime by an internatio­nal convention, and there have been no U.S. naval vessels there since before the war began.

But Milley suggested that the United States has “a lot of allies and friends” in the region that could assist.

Milley said that measures had been taken to make sure that the drone “is no longer of value” if Russia recovers it. “We’ll work through recovery operations,” he said. “It probably broke up. There’s probably not a lot to recover, frankly.”

The first U.S. defense official said that, before the drone was downed, operators took steps to wipe its electronic­s in hopes of rendering the wreckage useless for intelligen­ce collection. But those steps are “not foolproof,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in an interview with CNN. “We did the best we could to minimize any intelligen­ce value that might come from anybody else getting their hands” on it.

American officials were still going through videos and photos transmitte­d by the drone before the crash, Austin said. But “in terms of what the video shows, we remain confident in the facts that we have conveyed thus far in terms of what happened.”

 ?? Janis Laizans/reuters ?? A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone at Amari Air Base in Estonia in 2020. The Kremlin said it would try to retrieve the wreckage of an MQ-9 Reaper like this that was downed in the Black Sea.
Janis Laizans/reuters A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone at Amari Air Base in Estonia in 2020. The Kremlin said it would try to retrieve the wreckage of an MQ-9 Reaper like this that was downed in the Black Sea.

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