Russia’s envoy in Washington DC has blamed the US for Tuesday’s incident, in which the Air Force said one of its MQ-9 Reaper drones crashed into the Black Sea after being rammed by Russian Su-27 fighter jets and urged the US to stop flying missions near the Russian border.
The Foreign Ministry summoned Ambassador Anatoly Antonov on Tuesday to explain the incident. Antonov later released a communiqué condemning what he called “unacceptable actions by the US military in close proximity to our borders,” according to Russia’s state news agency TASS.
US Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, the commander of US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in a statement that the drone was flying over international waters and was lost after “the Su-27s dumped fuel and flew in before the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unfriendly and unprofessional manner.”
One of the Russian planes then hit the Reaper’s propeller, forcing her into the sea, he said. “This incident demonstrates a lack of competence, not just unsafe and unprofessional,” Hecker added.
Antonov denied the US report of the incident, instead claiming there was no physical contact or other improper harassment of the drone by Russian fighters. The drone, he said news weekgathered intelligence to help Ukrainian units attack Russian forces.
“We are aware of the missions for which such reconnaissance and attack drones are used,” the ambassador said in a communiqué quoted by TASS. “What are they doing thousands of miles away from the United States? The answer is obvious: they collect information that will later be used by the Kiev regime to attack our forces and our territory.”
“Let’s ask a rhetorical question: if, for example, a Russian attack drone appeared near New York or San Francisco, how would the US Air Force and Navy react? I am quite confident that the US military would act uncompromisingly and not allow its airspace or territorial waters to be violated,” he added.
“We expect that the United States will refrain from further speculation in the media landscape and will no longer conduct operations near the Russian border… We find any action involving the use of American weapons and military equipment to be openly hostile.” “
Leonid Slutsky, leader of the right-wing populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, told TASS the incident was “proof that the United States is involved in the Ukraine conflict.”
“Undoubtedly, this was a provocation that Russia can only regard as hostile action,” the lawmaker said.
The US routinely conducts reconnaissance flights over the Black Sea and around Russia’s borders, as does Moscow on the fringes of NATO airspace.
Mark Voyger, a former special adviser on Russian and Eurasian affairs to then-US Army Europe commander Gen. Ben Hodges, said news week that Moscow is sending out the message that “from the Russian point of view, the Black Sea is practically almost an inland sea”. All non-Black Sea countries, he said, are perceived by the Kremlin as “invaders.”
“What happens in the Black Sea doesn’t stay in the Black Sea,” Voyger added, portraying the drone incident as part of a larger Russian effort to pressure Ukrainian partners amid Moscow’s elusive battlefield success.
“I don’t see it as an isolated incident, but as part of this larger, ongoing strategy to effectively reclaim quasi-sovereignty over the Black Sea,” said Voyger – now a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for European Analysis and a professor at American University Kiev – added. “The fact that they’re doing this over international waters tells me they’re getting more aggressive.”
“I would say they are quite worried about losing Crimea if they are willing to launch such a provocation,” Voyger said of the Russian downing of the US drone.
The area is likely to become tighter in the coming months, he added. “I don’t think the Russians will back down. My expectation is that as the time approaches for the Ukrainians to launch their counter-offensive, particularly if it targets Crimea, more of the same will likely happen, or at least the Russians will be more trigger-happy.”
“I wouldn’t predict that they’ll start shooting at western planes, but unmanned vehicles are likely to be fair game for them in the future.”
news week emailed the Russian Ministry of Defense to solicit comment.