The United States has released video of the moment it says a Russian fighter jet collided with a US Air Force unmanned drone, forcing it to ditch into the Black Sea.
In the newly declassified vision, released on Thursday night, the jet can be seen releasing fuel as it passes over the drone. In a second approach, the jet performs a similar manoeuvre and collides with the drone’s propeller, the US European Command (EUCOM) said.
The camera feed, which is pointed backward towards the drone’s tail, cuts out twice in the video, once due to the fuel dump and once after the collision, the command said.
The damaged propeller can be seen when the camera feed comes back online, which EUCOM said took about 60 seconds.
The US forces said the incident lasted 30 to 40 minutes but the video had been edited for length. Nor does it show the events before or after the collision. Russia has denied there was any collision.
With the propeller damaged, the drone operators effectively flew the aircraft as a glider as it descended over the Black Sea, bringing it down in international waters south-west of Crimea.
On its way down, two US officials told CNN the operators remotely wiped the drone’s sensitive software, mitigating the risk of secret materials falling into enemy hands before it crashed into the water.
Despite the release of the dramatic footage, and back and forth over who is to blame, the Biden administration has not said it will take action against Russia over the downing of the drone, perhaps indicating a desire to not further escalate tensions after the Kremlin said overnight that relations between Moscow and Washington are at their “lowest point”.
A senior Biden administration official said the footage “absolutely confirms” that there was a physical collision and dumping of fuel, but it does not confirm the pilot’s intent.
Two US officials familiar with the intelligence told CNN that senior officials at the Russian Ministry of Defence gave the order for the Russian fighter jets to harass a US drone over the Black Sea this week.
The high-level military officials’ connection to the incident suggests that the fighter jet pilots were not taking rogue action when they interfered with the US drone.
But, at this time there is no indication that the highest of political leaders in Russia – particularly those in the Kremlin, including President Vladimir Putin – knew about the planned aggression in advance, one of the US officials said.
Questions remain on retrieving drone
National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby said on CNN This Morning on Wednesday that the drone had not been recovered and that he was “not sure” the US would be able to recover it.
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Moscow had made clear it would attempt to retrieve the wreckage of the drone, and two officials told CNN that Russia had reached the MQ-9 crash site in the Black Sea.
Kirby would not confirm the reported development, but said the US had “made it impossible for them to be able to glean anything of intelligence value off the remnants of that drone, whatever remnants there might be on the surface of the water”.
The Kremlin has said a decision on whether to retrieve the drone will come from Russia’s Ministry of Defence.
“This is the prerogative of the military. If they believe that it is necessary for our interests and our security in the Black Sea, they will do it,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
Peskov said he did not know what the ministry had decided.
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In the wake of the incident, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley spoke to their Russian counterparts for the first time since October.
While intercept attempts are not uncommon, the incident amid the war in Ukraine has raised concerns it could bring the United States and Russia closer to direct conflict.
That the two countries’ top defense and military leaders were talking so soon after the encounter over the Black Sea underscored its seriousness.
The Russian Defence Ministry said in its report of the call with Austin that Shoigu accused the US of provoking the incident by ignoring flight restrictions the Kremlin had imposed because of its military operations in Ukraine.
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Russia also blamed “the intensification of intelligence activities against the interests of the Russian Federation”.
Such US actions “are fraught with escalation of the situation in the Black Sea area”, the Defence Ministry said, warning that Russia “will respond in kind to all provocations”.
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Last modified: February 15, 2023