Fears of an escalation between nuclear superpowers Russia and the United States mounted Tuesday after a U.S. Air Force Reaper drone went down in international waters in the Black Sea during an encounter with a Russian fighter jet, with both sides giving varying accounts of the incident.
According to U.S. European Command (EUCOM):
Two Russian Su-27 aircraft conducted an unsafe and unprofessional intercept with a U.S. Air Force intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance unmanned MQ-9 aircraft that was operating within international airspace over the Black Sea today. At approximately 7:03 am (CET), one of the Russian Su-27 aircraft struck the propeller of the MQ-9, causing U.S. forces to have to bring the MQ-9 down in international waters. Several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound, and unprofessional manner. This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.
“This 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,” EUCOM added. “These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation. ”
U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker said in a statement that “U.S. and allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and safely.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement on the incident claiming that the U.S. drone had its transponders turned off and denying that Russian aircraft came into contact with the MQ-9. The ministry said the U.S. aircraft “violated the boundaries” of an area demarcated by Moscow “for the purpose of conducting a special military operation”—an invasion—in Ukraine, and that the drone “went into uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and collided with the water surface” as “a result of sharp maneuvering.”
An unnamed U.S. Air Force official told The War Zone that American officials do not believe the Russians deliberately tried to bring down the drone, but that the alleged collision “seems to be simple incompetence.”
War Zone reporters Howard Altman and Joseph Trevithick wrote that “today’s incident does, of course, come amid long-standing concerns about the potential for the conflict in Ukraine to spill out more broadly in the region.”
“Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, routinely issue nebulous threats to retaliate against the United States, other members of NATO, and other countries over military aid and other support for Ukraine,” the pair added. “How either side will react to the loss of the MQ-9 remains to be seen.”