Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Russian counterpart about a U.S. surveillance drone that crashed into the Black Sea after an encounter with a Russian fighter jet, as officials sought to keep the incident from further escalating tension already high over the invasion of Ukraine.
Austin told reporters at a press conference in Washington that he spoke to Sergei Shoigu about what he called Russia’s “dangerous, reckless, and unprofessional behavior in international airspace,” amid what was shaping up to be a race to recover the wreckage of the MQ-9 Reaper drone. The U.S. said two Russian fighter jets harassed the drone over the Black Sea by dumping fuel on it and flying in front of it, before one of them hit its propeller and forced it to crash.
“The United States will fly and operate wherever international law allows,” Austin told a briefing. “We take any potential for escalation very seriously and that’s why I believe it’s important to keep the lines of communication open,” Austin said. “I think it’s really key that we’re able to pick up the phone and talk to each other.”
Russia said its jets didn’t come into contact with the drone and that the Reaper crashed “as a result of sharp maneuvering.” Russia’s Interfax news agency, citing the defense ministry, said the call between Austin and Shoigu took place at the initiative of the U.S. but provided no other details.
The episode led to fears of a broader escalation or even the possibility that the U.S. could be drawn directly into the conflict. But officials sought to steer away from that possibility, with Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying he didn’t know if the Russian jet intentionally struck the drone. He said the U.S. had video evidence of the incident and there was no doubt Russia’s actions were aggressive.
“As far as an act of war goes — I’m not going to go there,” Milley said when asked by a reporter about the possibility. “We do not seek armed conflict with Russia.”
Many questions remained about the drone, including where exactly it was before it crashed and what it was monitoring. Russia’s navy has a fleet based in the Black Sea, with its headquarters in the city of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
In its initial statement about the incident on Wednesday, Russia’s defense ministry said the drone’s transponder was turned off and that it flew into the airspace where Russia had declared a military operation. Moscow will try to retrieve the drone, according to Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council. He told a state TV reporter he wasn’t sure if that would be possible but “it’s definitely true that we need to and are trying.”
The drone crashed and sank in about 4,000-5,000 feet of water, making recovery efforts difficult. Milley, asked about the possible intelligence value of the drone should Russia recover it, said the U.S. took “mitigating measures so we’re quite confident whatever was of value is no longer of value.”
The two countries’ relationship has almost completely broken down in the year since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine. The U.S. strategy for Ukraine has rested on sending weapons and other assets while avoiding direct involvement for fear that the war would spread beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Experts and U.S. officials said the incident came after a spate of increasingly aggressive Russian actions in region. Such incidents sometimes resulted in the deaths of service members, as during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union shot down a C-130 over Armenia, killing 17 airmen.
“Aggressive intercepts of U.S. intelligence-collection platforms around Russia’s periphery have occurred in the past, including with manned platforms,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp., who studies arms proliferation, Russia and Ukraine. “What is different about this is the collision. That kind of thing is actually exceptionally rare. It’s manipulating the risk of collision that Russia usually does.”
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