This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
U.S. military officials said on March 15 that the intercept of a U.S. spy drone over the Black Sea by Russian fighter jets was intentional and part of a pattern of “aggressive and unsafe” actions by Russian pilots in international airspace as Washington and Moscow ratcheted up their rhetoric over the incident.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke by phone to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, for the first time in five months, both sides said, but neither gave details of the conversation. The Russian Defense Ministry said the request for the call came from the United States.
“It’s important that great powers be models of transparency and communication,” Austin told reporters in Washington. He said keeping the lines of communication open would help “prevent miscalculation going forward.”
U.S. Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who appeared at the briefing with Austin, said that, while the intercept was intentional, it is still unclear whether the jet’s collision with the MQ-9 Reaper drone was.
Austin and Milley spoke after a virtual meeting of the so-called Ramstein group of dozens of countries that have been providing arms to Kyiv.
Austin declined to characterize the drone incident as an act of war but stressed that the United States will continue to fly and operate wherever international law allows.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in its statement on the call with Austin that Shoigu noted the U.S. had provoked the incident by ignoring flight restrictions the Kremlin has imposed over the Black Sea due to its military operation in Ukraine.
The ministry also blamed “the intensification of intelligence activities against the interests of the Russian Federation.” Such U.S. actions “are fraught with escalation of the situation in the Black Sea area,” the ministry said, warning that Russia “will respond in kind to all provocations.”
Officials in Moscow and Washington earlier accused each other in the crash of the drone on March 14 near the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Washington said Russia committed “a brazen violation of International law” caused by “unsafe and unprofessional” behavior after Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the MQ-9 drone on March 14 in an apparent attempt to blind or damage it.
The United States said one of two Russian Su-27 jets flew close to the drone and one of them hit its propeller. Moscow denied the accusations and said no contact was made and blamed “sharp maneuvering” by the U.S. aircraft for the crash.
“The Americans keep saying they’re not taking part in military operations. This is the latest confirmation that they are directly participating in these activities — in the war,” Kremlin Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said earlier.
The drone has yet to be recovered, and White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said it may never be.
“I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to recover it,” Kirby said in an interview with CNN. The location where it fell into the Black Sea is very deep, he said.
The New York Times reported that the MQ-9 Reaper drone was flying from its base in Romania and was carrying out planned reconnaissance.
Kirby said the Russian ambassador to Washington had been summoned over the issue and warned that Russian aircraft have to be more careful in international airspace to avoid an event that could escalate tensions.
Tensions between the West and Russia have been running high for more than a year after Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.