Washington’s claim that a Russian fighter jet collided with a US surveillance drone near Crimea, causing it to crash, is both a rare military incident between the two superpowers and a serious escalation in already tense relations since the invasion of Moscow in Ukraine last year.
US and Russian officials have issued conflicting accounts about what happened Tuesday over the Black Sea between the MQ-9 Reaper drone, worth more than $30 million and packed with sensitive US spy technology, and two Russian Su-27 fighter jets that were deployed to intercept the American plane.
Here’s what we know about the incident so far:
What the US said happened
The Pentagon said two Russian Su-27 aircraft intercepted the drone and then dumped fuel on the MQ-9 Reaper model as it conducted routine surveillance over the Black Sea in international airspace.
US officials said the Russian jets flew around and in front of the drone several times for 30 to 40 minutes, after which one of the Su-27 fighters “hit the propeller” of the drone, “forcing US troops to bring down the MQ-9 in international waters”.
A Pentagon spokesman said the collision likely damaged the Russian fighter jet, although the Su-27 did land.
It is not clear whether the collision was accidental or deliberate by the Russian pilots, but both sides report that Russian aircraft intercepted the drone.
US officials said the drone was operating in international airspace, reportedly west of Crimea over the Black Sea.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the drone flew near the Russian border and entered an area declared off-limits by Russian authorities.
Fighter jets were deployed to intercept the drone, which the Russian ambassador to the US claimed had its transponders disabled – a device that identifies an aircraft in flight.
The Defense Department said the two fighter jets did not use their onboard weapons against the US drone and did not come into physical contact with the aircraft. The drone crashed for its own reasons, the ministry said.
“As a result of rapid maneuvering, MQ9 went into unguided flight with loss of altitude and collided with the surface of the water,” the Russian embassy in Washington, DC, said in a tweet quoting the ministry.
⚡️@mod_russia: 🇷🇺 fighter jets rushed to identify the intruder. As a result of quick maneuvering, MQ-9 went into unguided flight with loss of altitude and collided with the surface of the water.
❗️The 🇷🇺 aircraft used no weapons on board, did not come into contact with MQ-9. pic.twitter.com/1IMi3X0D0i
— Russian Embassy in the US 🇷🇺 (@RusEmbUSA) March 14, 2023
“The MQ-9 drone was flying with transponders disabled, violating the limits of the temporary airspace regime established for the special military operation, communicated to all users of international airspace and published in accordance with international standards,” the embassy said.
Russia has banned flights from vast areas near Crimea. The US does not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea after its invasion of the area in 2014.
Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said the US drone had gathered intelligence which was then used by Ukrainian forces to attack Russia.
“We are well aware of the missions for which such reconnaissance and attack drones are used,” the ambassador said on his Telegram channel on Wednesday. US drone flights in the region collect intelligence “which is later used by the Kiev regime to attack our forces and territory,” he said.
The US State Department summoned Ambassador Antonov to meet with Karen Donfried, the assistant secretary of state for Europe.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “We are in direct talks with the Russians, again at higher levels, to convey our strong objections to this unsafe, unprofessional interception, which has resulted in the downing of the U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle. plane caused.”
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has not spoken to his Russian counterpart about the incident, Ryder said.
NEWS: Russian fighter jets attack US unmanned aerial vehicles
— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) March 14, 2023
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, DC, said during the current tensions between Russia and the US over the invasion of Ukraine, the drone incident was “potentially very serious.”
“Any incident like this, no matter how tenuous the situation, is a problem for both sides,” he said.
“But what we are seeing here may be an effort by both sides not to let the situation escalate further,” he added.