A Russian warplane forced down a US drone over the Black Sea, the US said, another reminder of the potential risks of escalation linked to the war in Ukraine.
According to US officials, an MQ-9 drone was conducting “routine” reconnaissance operations around 7 a.m. local time Tuesday over international waters, when it was intercepted by Russian jets. The aircraft collided with the drone, damaging its propeller, forcing the US to shoot the drone down. “This unsafe and unprofessional action by the Russians almost caused the downing of both aircraft,” Gen. James B. Hecker, the commander of the US Air Force in Europe, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Russia denied its aircraft collided with the drone, saying the US drone crashed due to its own maneuvers.
The US said it would continue to conduct missions in international space, and called on Russia to conduct itself safely. “This incident follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while engaging US and Allied aircraft in international airspace, including over the Black Sea. These aggressive actions by Russian aircrews are dangerous and can lead to miscalculations and unintended increases,” the statement read.
Asked for more information on alleged past Russian actions, Megan A. Crusher, public affairs officer for US Air Forces in Europe, said they were “gathering details” and would be in touch with more information.
The United States also summoned the Russian ambassador in response to the incident.
The collision, if confirmed, would be the first physical military engagement between Russia and the US since the start of the war in Ukraine. This is another sign of the larger geopolitical tensions that underlie that conflict. Russia is stepping up its offensive, however trying to take Ukrainian territory. At the same time, the United States and its allies are providing Kyiv with economic and security assistance that makes it possible for Ukraine to fight the war, and potentially deter Russia’s advance and reclaim its territory. The West’s deep involvement, and Russia’s uncompromising focus on continuing its aggression, ultimately put the two nuclear superpowers at odds.
For now, Washington appears to be trying to defuse the situation, warning Russia about the danger of escalation, while emphasizing the need for professional and safe behavior. Pentagon Press Secretary General Pat Ryder said on Tuesday that the US drone was flying over a “busy and international waterway” and that this was not an unusual mission for the US, especially this past year.
The White House and the Pentagon have also stressed that interceptions of Russian aircraft are not unusual events, either – that is, Russian jets just want to see what’s flying there. (The Russian jets were flying alongside the US drone for about 30 or 40 minutes before the hit.) Ryder emphasized that most of these interceptions were safe and professional; the difference this time is that the Russian jet collided with the US drone and destroyed it.
It is unclear whether the Russian aircraft was also damaged as a result of the collision. The Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement that the US drone was “rapidly maneuvering,” and then crashed after an encounter with Russian jets near Crimea, which Russia considers part of its territory — all in all, a rather strange take on the incident.
The The Russian Navy effectively blocked the Black Seastrangled the ports of Ukraine, and limited grain is allowed to flow as part of a UN-brokered deal. However, US officials insisted that the unmanned aircraft was in international airspace and “well clear” of Ukraine. (The Russian Foreign Ministry did not return a request for comment.)
The United States and Russia had a close call before, belonging to Syria, where US and Russian jets had midair near misses. As a result, Washington and Moscow set up a “deconfliction” line in Syria, to negotiate and avoid other miscalculations. At the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia and the US again maintained such a deconfliction line to avoid the potential for similar miscues that could push the two nuclear powers into a more direct confrontation. In November, it was only used once, according to reports. Crusher, with the US Air Forces in Europe, confirmed to Vox that, prior to the Russian collision, “no inbound calls to or outbound calls from the deconfliction line were made regarding this incident.”
Right now, the United States and Russia are offering two different takes, which is a troubling sign in any moment of crisis. More details are likely to emerge in the coming days and weeks that may offer a clearer picture of the incident.
But it’s also part of a bigger story, about how instability in Ukraine continues to threaten to collapse, from an apparent mistake or provocation. In November, a errant missile from a Ukrainian air defense system reached Poland, killing two. This aircraft collision once again demonstrates the dangerous balancing act between Moscow and Washington, and how a miscalculated or ill-timed move carries the risk of conflict spreading beyond Ukraine.