The United States blamed Russia for an “unsafe and unprofessional” intercept March 4 by its fighter jets causing a U.S. spy drone to crash into the Black Sea, while Moscow’s ambassador to the U.S. countered that the drone flight was a set-up to spark accusations against Russia.
Washington summoned Russia’s Ambassador Anatoly Antonov to protest the “reckless” conduct of the Russian pilots of two Su-27 fighter jets after the Pentagon said the intercept of the MQ-9 Reaper drone in international airspace had caused the loss of the drone.
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The jets dumped fuel on the MQ-9 in an apparent attempt to blind or damage it, and flew in front of the aircraft before one of the jets collided with the drone’s propeller, Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the incident marked a clear violation of international law.
Moscow’s emissary to the United States maintained on Tuesday that the MQ-9’s unmanned mission above the Black Sea was a provocation.
“The aircraft was flying with its transponders off, and it entered the zone of the special military operation. It [the information about the zone] was made public via international channels,” Antonov said. “We, Russia, have warned everyone about it. I think this was a real provocation.” He made his comments to reporters after consultations at the US Department of State, where the diplomat was summoned over the incident.
“They provoked us to take a certain action, which would allow them to accuse Russia and the Russian military of being non-professional,” the Russian diplomat said, according to the Russian state news agency, TASS.
Ryder said earlier that the U.S. military had to crash the drone into the Black Sea because of damage it sustained when it was intercepted.
Ryder said he was not aware of any radio communications between Russian and U.S. officials at the time of the incident.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied that its aircraft had come into contact with the drone, which it said had crashed after “sharp maneuvering.” It said the drone had been detected near the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
“The Russian fighters did not use their onboard weapons, did not come into contact with the [drone], and returned safely to their home airfield,” the ministry said.
Speaking after meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Karen Donfried, Antonov insisted that the Russian jets didn’t hit the American drone or use their weapons. Moscow wants “pragmatic” ties with Washington, he said. “We don’t want any confrontation between the U.S. and Russia,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York) called the incident “another reckless act” by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military.
“I want to tell Mr. Putin, stop this behavior before you are the reason for an unintended escalation,” Schumer said in remarks to the U.S. Senate.
The MQ-9 was conducting routine ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) mission in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, U.S. Air Force General James Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in a statement.
The collision resulted in the complete loss of the MQ-9, Hecker said. Ryder said the wreckage of the drone has not yet been recovered.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CNN the drone is the property of the United States and the U.S. military doesn’t want any other country to “get their hands on it.”
NATO diplomats in Brussels confirmed that the incident took place but said they did not expect it to immediately escalate into a further confrontation.
The incident follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with U.S. and allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea, the U.S. statement said.
U.S. forces routinely fly aircraft throughout Europe over sovereign territory and throughout international airspace in coordination with host nations and international laws, the statement said.
Russian intercepts of non-Russian planes and drones are “not uncommon,” but this one “is noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional…indeed reckless that it was,” Kirby said earlier on a call with reporters.
He said while it was not the first intercept of its kind, it was the first that had resulted in a U.S. drone going down in the Black Sea.
“We have been flying over that airspace consistently now for a year and we are going to continue to do that,” Kirby added.
With reporting by RFE/RL.