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After drone clash, is direct Russia-US confrontation more likely?


Kyiv, Ukraine – It appeared to be a deliberate maneuver by a skilled pilot that led to the first direct military clash between the United States and Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine.

Two Russian fighter jets approached a US drone flying in the cloudless, azure sky over international waters in the Black Sea on Tuesday morning.

One of the Russian Su-27s released a stream of jet fuel on the MQ-9 Reaper drone, knocking out the cameras.

Then the Su-27 hit the Reaper’s propeller, causing it to tumble into the sea, the Pentagon said.

It said the Reaper was a “reconnaissance drone” and carried no weapons, though the 26-metre (85-foot) wingspan unmanned aerial vehicle was designed as a “hunter-killer” armed with laser-guided bombs and missiles.

It was the most significant head-to-head confrontation between superpowers since the start of the war in Ukraine last February.

Tuesday’s incident took place off the coast of Crimea, the jewel in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crown annexed by Ukraine in 2014.

Moscow has repeatedly emphasized its concern about Crimea’s security – some Western observers would say Russia is rather paranoid – and the need for a “land bridge” between Russia and the Black Sea peninsula was one of the main reasons why the Kremlin started the war.

Moscow said it had warned the US not to enter the zone of what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

The Russian Defense Ministry stated that the Su-27 jets encrypted the drone as it flew towards the Russian border and that the transponder was disabled.

It warned that the incident could lead to an “escalation” in the Black Sea basin.

“Flights of US strategic unmanned aerial vehicles near the coast of Crimea are of a provocative nature and are a pretext for the escalation in the Black Sea zone,” it said in a statement.

“Balanced Power”

So, has the downing of the Reaper become a casus belli and is there a risk of direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia?

Experts say it’s unlikely.

Russians are “morbidly obsessed with reactions,” said Ukraine’s top military analyst.

The downing of the drone was in retaliation for the damage done to a key Russian aircraft in late February, said Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

A drone strike on an airfield in pro-Russian Belarus north of the Ukrainian border targeted one of only nine B-50 aircraft capable of identifying the locations of Ukrainian air defense units.

Belarusian “guerrilla fighters” claimed responsibility for the attack and the damaged aircraft was returned to Russia.

Washington should respond to the drone downing with “balanced” force, Romanenko said.

“There must be punishment, financial and demonstrative,” he told Al Jazeera.

The US should use “balanced force that will not lead to world war and the use of nuclear weapons. The Russians will understand that,” he said.

He said a larger conflict is off the table because NATO’s main goal in helping Ukraine is to “not escalate” the ongoing war.

The West has spent tens of billions on military aid to Ukraine, but has been extremely careful not to fan the flames of Europe’s bloodiest armed conflict since World War II.

Another expert agrees that the downing was Russia’s revenge, but for another demonstrative incident.

On Saturday, a US B-52 fighter flew over the Baltic Sea and approached a Russian island in the Gulf of Finland.

“This is kind of a warning,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a historian at the University of Bremen in Germany, told Al Jazeera.

“But the effect will be reversed – in three months at the latest, Western fighter jets will be in Ukraine, and ‘retired (Western) volunteers’ will fly them,” he said.


The drone incident is counterproductive to the Kremlin because it will increase faltering public support for Ukraine in the United States, another observer said.

“The downing of the drone has led to even greater consolidation of US political elites in Russia,” Pavel Luzin, a defense analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told Al Jazeera. “That’s the most important result so far,” he said.

While US President Joe Biden said Washington would support Ukraine “as long as it takes” to triumph over Russia, polls show that Americans are less in favor of helping Kiev with guns.

According to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released in mid-February, 48 percent of Americans said they support military aid to Ukraine, and 29 percent oppose it.

By May 2022, 60 percent of Americans supported aid, it said.

Meanwhile, leading Republican presidential candidates, former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have said supporting Ukraine is against US strategic interests.

Blame the US

To Moscow, the clash seemed like a pretext to equate Russia and the US as “great powers”.

“Any incidents leading to a confrontation of two great powers, two of the world’s greatest nuclear powers, always involve very serious risks. The US can’t help but understand,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised remarks.

A Ukrainian military analyst said the drone incident was Moscow’s desperate attempt to start direct talks with the US as the Kremlin tries to find a way out of the quagmire.

Moscow’s initial goals of taking the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and replacing President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government with pro-Kremlin puppets failed.

“On the Russian side, it looks like an ‘information attack’ (an attempt) to start negotiations with the Americans,” retired Ukrainian colonel Roman Svitan told Nastoyashchee Vremya’s website.

While the Pentagon said it has erased the drone’s memory, Russia could also attempt to fish out and study the drone’s debris.

“We will certainly look into it,” Nikolai Patrushev, a longtime Putin ally and the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said in televised remarks.


Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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