A Russian aircraft has struck an unmanned US drone over the Black Sea, American officials have claimed, in an incident they described as a “reckless” action by Vladimir Putin’s military.
The US military said two Russian Su-27 aircraft had sought to “intercept” a US MQ-9 Air Force Reaper drone on Tuesday morning over international waters, flying repeatedly close to the aircraft. One of the Russian planes then struck the propeller of the drone, forcing the US military to bring it down.
“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,” the US military said. “This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.”
The incident, which marked the first time US and Russian military aircraft have had direct contact since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine last year, risks ratcheting up tensions between Washington and Moscow ahead of what both Russia and Ukraine see as a crucial window to secure an advantage on the battlefield.
The US has used Reaper drones to monitor the Black Sea since before Russia invaded Ukraine. The drones can fly as high as 50,000 feet and are able to operate for extended periods of time to collect intelligence.
John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council, told reporters that president Joe Biden had been briefed on the incident on Tuesday morning.
Kirby said it was “not uncommon” for foreign actors to fly close to US aircraft over the Black Sea, but what was “noteworthy” and “unique” in this case was how “unsafe”, “unprofessional” and “reckless” the action was.
Russia’s defence ministry said the US drone crossed into airspace over the Black Sea over which Moscow claims jurisdiction, prompting its air force to send two jets from a nearby base to identify the craft.
It claimed the drone lost control “as a result of a sharp manoeuvre” and crashed into the sea without Russian involvement. “The Russian fighters did not fire on the drone or enter into contact with it and returned safely to base,” the ministry said.
US state department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday: “We are engaging directly with the Russians . . . to convey our strong objections to this unsafe, unprofessional intercept, which caused the downing of the unmanned US aircraft. As to the particulars, we are summoning the Russian ambassador to the department where we will convey this message.”
The incident comes just weeks after Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv and pledged “unwavering support” for Ukraine’s independence. Since the start of the year the US has announced more than $10bn in lethal aid for Ukraine.
However, the issue has become increasingly politically divisive in the US, with Florida governor and expected presidential candidate Ron DeSantis saying this week that further support for Ukraine is not in the US’s “vital national interests”.
Russian aircraft commonly shadow US drones operating in the area but a US official said the dangerous manoeuvres were “not normally seen in an operational environment”.
The Pentagon declined to give a precise location for the collision in the Black Sea, and would not say whether the drone was armed, but officials said it had been conducting surveillance.
Republican Senator Roger Wicker, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Tuesday: “This incident should serve as a wake-up call to isolationists in the United States that it is in our national interest to treat Putin as the threat he truly is.”
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