Moscow says the downing of US drones points to increased intelligence gathering for the annexed Crimean peninsula.
Intensified spying by US drones near Ukraine could lead to an escalation and Russia will respond proportionately to future intelligence-gathering operations, Moscow’s defense chief has told his US counterpart.
The comments came in a phone call between Sergei Shoigu and Pentagon boss Lloyd Austin on Wednesday after the United States accused a Russian Su-27 fighter jet of colliding with one of its Reaper surveillance drones, forcing it to crash into the Black Sea.
Russia denied that it deliberately shot down the unmanned aerial vehicles.
“It was noted that flights by US strategic lethal drones along the coast of Crimea were provocative in nature and created the conditions for an escalation of the situation in the Black Sea region,” a Defense Ministry statement quoted Shoigu as saying.
“(Russia) has no interest in such a development, but it will continue to respond proportionately to all provocations.”
It was the first such military incident between Moscow and Washington since President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine in February 2022.
‘Prevent calculation errors’
Shoigu noted that “increased intelligence activity is against the interests of the Russian Federation” and “non-compliance with the restricted flight zone,” Moscow stated after its campaign in Ukraine led to the incident, the ministry said.
It was the first call between Austin and Shoigu since October, and General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a similar call with his Russian counterpart General Valery Gerasimov.
“We take any potential for escalation very seriously. And that’s why I think it’s important to keep the lines of communication open,” Austin said at a Pentagon news conference. “I think it’s really important that we can pick up the phone and get in touch. And I think that will help to avoid miscalculations in the future.”
The US military said it dumped the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper into the sea after a Russian fighter jet allegedly poured fuel on the surveillance drone and then struck its propeller as it flew in international airspace. It said it was working to release drone surveillance footage that would show Tuesday’s crash.
That senior US and Russian defense and military leaders spoke so soon after the incident underlined the seriousness of the encounter over the Black Sea and that both sides recognized the need to contain the risks of escalation.
‘Very serious risks’
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, contact between US and Russian military leaders has been limited, with Russian officials refusing to take US military calls in the early months of the war.
Austin and Milley said the incident would not prevent the US from flying where international law allows.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov previously told reporters that Russia banned certain parts of the Black Sea from all air traffic during the conflict in Ukraine and suggested the US was trying to provoke an escalation through the surveillance flights.
The drone crashed near Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized and illegally annexed in 2014.
“Any incidents that could lead to a confrontation between the two superpowers – the two major nuclear powers – carry very serious risks,” Lavrov said.