The United States is in a race against time to recover an American drone downed by a Russian fighter jet in the Black Sea before it falls into Moscow’s hands, as fears mounted today that the war in Ukraine could escalate further.
The MQ-9 Reaper drone crashed after being intercepted by two Russian fighter jets on Tuesday morning, in what US officials have said was a deliberate act to take it out the skies, possibly in an attempt to seize its data.
Moscow said it would work to retrieve the wreckage of the $32million drone in what would be a propaganda coup for Vladimir Putin, after earlier warning that it will ‘consider any action with US weaponry as openly hostile’.
‘I don’t know whether we’ll be able to retrieve it or not but it has to be done. And we will certainly work on it,’ Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev said in televised remarks on Wednesday.
Earlier, White House national security spokesman John Kirby confirmed the US was reviewing ‘imagery’ collected from the region, close to the frontlines of Putin’s on-going war in Ukraine which Russia invaded in February 2022.
He also said the UAV may never be recovered from the crash site, admitting that the Reaper wreckage is still in the Black Sea, adding that US officials have told Moscow to be more careful when flying in international air space around American assets.
According to US officials the MQ-9 Reaper drone was intercepted by two Russian Su-27 jets that dumped fuel on top of the drone before clipping its propeller, forcing it to crash
Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, described the incident over the Black Sea involving a US MQ-9 Reaper drone and Russian Su-27 fighter jets as ‘an act of provocation’
Russia’s Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, accused the US of committing an ‘act of provocation’ after the $32 million US surveillance drone was intercepted by two Su-27 fighter jets in international airspace.
Antonov warned Washington it must stop ‘hostile’ flights near his country’s border – or face the consequences.
But the US remained defiant and vowed to continue to fly their aircraft where permitted over the Black Sea. Kirby said earlier that Russia will ‘fail’ in their attempts to ‘deter’ Washington from doing so.
‘We don’t need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace. There’s no requirement to do that nor do we do it,’ Kirby said.
Washington summoned Antonov over the incident.
The US has said that two Russian Su-27 fighters struck the propeller of the American drone, but Antonov has dismissed these claims. Instead, he said the drone manoeuvered sharply and crashed into the water following an encounter with Russian fighter jets that had been scrambled to intercept it near Crimea.
But the US European Command said two Russian Su-27 fighters intercepted the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper over international waters and one clipped its propeller.
Prior to that, the Su-27s dumped fuel on the MQ-9 and flew in front of it several times for 30 to 40 minutes in ‘a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner’, the US European Command said.
The incident, which added to Russia-US tensions over Moscow’s war in Ukraine, is believed to be the first time since the height of the Cold War that a US aircraft has been brought down after an encounter with a Russian warplane.
State Department spokesman Ned Price slammed the incident as a ‘brazen violation of international law’ and said the US summoned Antonov to lodge a protest and the US ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, has made similar representations in Moscow.
General James B. Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said the 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’.
He added that ‘in fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash’.
The MQ-9 includes a ground control station and satellite equipment and has a 66ft (20m) wingspan. It is capable of carrying munitions, but Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder would not say whether the drone was armed.
He said it appeared the Russian aircraft was also damaged in the collision, but the US has confirmed that it did land, although Ryder would not say where.
‘This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,’ Ryder said.
A Russian fighter jet collided with an American MQ-9 Reaper drone (like the one seen above) over the Black Sea, the US military confirmed today
Two Russian Su-27 fighter jets (file picture) conducted an ‘unsafe and unprofessional intercept’ in international airspace, the US said
Russia’s Defence Ministry insisted the US drone was flying over the Black Sea near Crimea and intruded in an area that was declared off-limits by Russia as part of its invasion of Ukraine, causing the military to scramble fighters to intercept it.
‘As a result of a sharp manoeuver, the MQ-9 drone went into unguided flight with a loss of altitude and crashed into the water,’ it said. ‘The Russian fighters didn’t use their weapons, didn’t come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle, and they safely returned to their base.’
Moscow has repeatedly protested about US intelligence flights close to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed.
The Kremlin claims that by providing weapons to Ukraine and sharing intelligence information with Kyiv, the US and its allies have effectively become engaged in the conflict.
Ambassador Antonov warned today: ‘We assume that the United States will refrain from further speculation in the media and stop flights near Russian borders. We consider any action with the use of US weaponry as openly hostile.’
But Mr Kirby vowed that the US would continue its missions in the area over the Black Sea.
‘If the message is that they want to deter or dissuade us from flying, and operating in international airspace, over the Black Sea, then that message will fail,’ Kirby said.
He added: ‘We’re going to continue to fly and operate in international airspace over international waters. The Black Sea belongs to no one nation.’
Mr Kirby added that the State Department ‘will be speaking directly with their Russian counterparts, and expressing our concerns over this unsafe and unprofessional intercept’.
The US European Command said the incident followed a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with American and allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea.
‘These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation,’ it warned.
General David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, said this type of collision is his greatest concern, both in that part of Europe as well as in the Pacific.
‘Probably my biggest worry both there and in the Pacific is an aggressive Russia or China pilot or vessel captain, or something gets too close, doesn’t realize where they are, and causes a collision,’ Berger said, in response to a question at a National Press Club event Tuesday.
Brigadier General Pat Ryder (pictured) said it appeared the Russian aircraft was also damaged in the collision, but the US has confirmed that it did land, although Ryder would not say where
The $32million US Reaper drone taken out of the sky by Russia
US MQ-9 Reaper
Type: Surveillance drone
Remote crew: Two
Top speed: 300mph
Wing span: 66ft
Range: 1,150 miles
Armament: AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II, and GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions
Russian Sukhoi SU-27
Type: Fighter jet
Top speed: 1,550mph
Wing span: 48ft
Range: 2,193 miles
Armament: 30mm cannon air-to-air/land missiles, rockets and bombs
It comes as there were calls in Moscow for the so far unnamed Su-27 pilot to be given a top state honour and cash rewards for downing the US drone.
Russian Lieutenant-General Andrey Gurulev led praise for the pilot and called for more action to neutralise drones flying near Crimea, which are seen as helping Ukraine to hit targets.
‘Patriots are rejoicing over the downing of the drone,’ he said. ‘My friends, I can assure you that everyone is rejoicing.
‘Everyone is rejoicing because this is probably one of the key moments in our special [military] operation. The armed forces of the Russian Federation have shown that the country’s patience is not infinite.
‘And this so-called incident is probably the key one…because those US intelligence assets and their satellites are giving information to the Ukrainian army today.’
He urged illegal action against AWACS, reconnaissance and communication satellites, including Starlinks.
Gurulev – a prominent pro-Putin TV propagandist – said: ‘So there is something to do to put all these reconnaissance brigades in their place. But no one doubts the heroism of the pilot. No doubt he will receive a worthy state award.’
One poll on a pro-war Telegram channel said the pilot should be made a rouble millionaire, with a cash prize of £10,900.
PolitNavigator Telegram channel said the Russian navy were ‘busy picking up the wreckage’, which US forces were also seeking to recover.
‘Some of the fragments were fished out of the water,’ said the report. There are suggestions that other debris from the drone had sunk.
As fighting continued in Ukraine, a Russian missile struck an apartment building on Tuesday in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, killing at least one person and wounding nine others in one of the major urban strongholds the Donetsk region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a video showing gaping holes in the façade of the low-rise building, which bore the brunt of the strike that damaged nine apartment blocks, a kindergarten, a bank branch and two cars, said regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.
A Ukrainian serviceman fires with a RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launcher during a military exercise, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, on Tuesday
Ukrainian servicemen attend a military exercise, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, on March 14
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking with workers at a helicopter factory in southern Siberia, again cast the conflict in Ukraine as an existential one for Russia.
‘For us, it’s not a geopolitical task,’ Putin said, ‘It’s the task of survival of Russian statehood and the creation of conditions for the future development of our country.’
Russia had welcomed a Chinese peace proposal, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Kyiv’s refusal to talk leaves Moscow with only military options.
‘We must achieve our goals,’ Peskov told reporters. ‘Given the current stance of the Kyiv regime, now it’s only possible by military means.’
The Russian onslaught has focused on the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut, where Kyiv’s troops have been fending off attacks for seven months and which has become a symbol of resistance, as well as a focal point of the war.
Zelensky discussed Bakhmut with his military top brass and they were unanimous in their determination to face down the Russian onslaught, according to the presidential office.
‘The defensive operation in (Bakhmut) is of paramount strategic importance to deterring the enemy. It is key for the stability of the defense of the entire front line,’ said Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces.