A Russian fighter jet forced down a US Air Force drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday after damaging the propeller of the American MQ-9 Reaper drone, according to the US military.
The Reaper drone and two Russian Su-27 aircraft were flying over international waters over the Black Sea on Tuesday when one of the Russian jets intentionally flew in front of and dumped fuel on the unmanned drone several times, a statement from US European Command said.
The aircraft then hit the propeller of the drone, prompting US forces to bring the MQ-9 drone down in international waters. Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder added Tuesday that the Russian aircraft flew “in the vicinity” of the drone for 30 to 40 minutes before colliding just after 7 a.m. Central European Time.
“Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9,” Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in the statement. “In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”
The incident marks the first time Russian and US military aircraft have come into direct physical contact since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine just over a year ago and is likely to increase tensions between the two nations, with US calling Russia’s actions “reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional.”
Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said that Russia does not want “confrontation” between his country and the US after he was summoned to the State Department following the downing of the drone.
“We prefer not to create a situation where we can face unintended clashes or unintended incidents between the Russian Federation and the United States,” Antonov said.
Antonov, who was inside the State Department for a little over half an hour, said Assistant Secretary Karen Donfried conveyed the US’ concerns about the incident and that they “exchanged our remarks on this issue because we have some differences.”
“It seems to me that it was a constructive conversation on this issue. I have heard her remarks, I hope that she has understood what I have mentioned,” Antonov said in response to a question from CNN.
He also claimed that Russia “had informed about this space that was identified as a zone for special military operation.”
“We have warned not to enter, not to penetrate,” he said, asking how the US would react if a Russian drone came close to New York or San Francisco.
Antonov reiterated a denial issued by the Russian Ministry of Defense on the incident. They denied the Russian jet had come into contact with the drone in a statement earlier on Tuesday, saying the fighter jets “scrambled to identify the intruder” after detecting it over the Black Sea, adding that the drone “went into an unguided flight with a loss of altitude.”
“The drone flew with its transponders off, violating the boundaries 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 ministry said.
President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident by national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday morning, according to National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby. Defense Department officials “have not spoken specifically to Russian authorities” on the incident, Ryder said.
Price said separately that the US has “engaged at high levels with our allies and partners” to brief them on the incident. He added that the US was “not in a position to speak to what the Russians intended to do” with the maneuvers, but that ultimately the intent mattered less than “what actually transpired.”
Kirby said it was “not uncommon” for Russian aircraft to intercept US aircraft over the Black Sea, and said there had been other intercepts in recent weeks.
But he said the episode Tuesday was unique in how “unsafe, unprofessional and reckless” the Russian actions were.
The US Defense Department is currently working to declassify imagery from the incident, Ryder said Tuesday. He also said that Russia has not recovered the downed drone.
Speaking with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” on Tuesday, Kirby said the US has “taken steps to protect our equities with respect to that particular drone.”
“We obviously don’t want to see anybody getting their hands on it beyond us,” Kirby said. He added that the US rejects Russia’s denial of responsibility, saying that people “should take everything that the Russians say about what they’re doing in and around Ukraine with a huge grain of salt.”
Russian and US aircraft have operated over the Black Sea during the course of the Ukraine war, but this is the first known such interaction, a potentially dangerous escalation at a critical time in the fighting.
The US has been operating Reaper drones over the Black Sea since before the beginning of the war, using the spy drones to monitor the area. Reaper drones can fly as high as 50,000 feet, according to the Air Force, and they have sensors and capabilities to gather intelligence and perform reconnaissance for extended periods of time, making it an ideal platform to track movements on the battlefield and in the Black Sea.
This story has been updated with additional details.