Russia said it will try to retrieve the wreckage of the US drone downed over the Black Sea as Moscow and Washington ratcheted up their confrontational rhetoric.
The Kremlin said the flight proved again that Washington is directly involved in the fighting in Ukraine and added that Moscow would try to recover the drone’s wreckage from the Black Sea.
But US officials said the incident showed Russia’s aggressive and risky behaviour and pledged to continue their surveillance.
Russia has long voiced concern about US surveillance flights near its borders, but Tuesday’s incident signalled Moscow’s increasing readiness to raise the ante as tensions soar between the two nuclear powers.
It reflected the Kremlin’s appetite for brinkmanship that could further destabilise the situation and lead to more direct confrontations.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said the incident was part of a “pattern of aggressive, risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace,” spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, on Wednesday for the first time in five months.
“It’s important that great powers be models of transparency and communication, and the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows,” Austin told reporters in Washington.
US General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who also appeared at the briefing, said, “We know that the intercept was intentional. We know that the aggressive behaviour was intentional,” but whether the Russian warplane’s collision with the MQ-9 Reaper drone was intentional was still unclear.
The Russian Defence Ministry said in its report of the call with Austin that Shoigu noted the US had provoked the incident by ignoring flight restrictions the Kremlin had imposed due to its military operation in Ukraine and 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,” it said, warning that Russia “will respond in kind to all provocations.”
Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said in televised remarks the drone incident was “another confirmation” of direct US involvement in the Ukraine conflict.
Patrushev, a confidant of President Vladimir Putin, also said Russia would search for the drone’s debris, but added, “I don’t know if we can recover them or not, but we will certainly have to do that.”
US officials said Russia dispatched ships to try to recover the wreckage, which Milley said were likely submerged 1200m to 1500m deep.
The US has no vessels in the Black Sea because Turkey closed the Bosphorus Strait to warships in 2022, except for those returning to home port.
US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the Pentagon “took steps to protect the information and to protect, to minimise any effort by anybody else to exploit that drone for useful content”.
Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, said Russia is capable of recovering the wreckage.
While encounters between Russian and NATO aircraft are not unusual — before the Ukraine invasion, NATO planes were involved in an annual average of 400 intercepts with Russian planes — the war has heightened the significance of such incidents.
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Last modified: December 27, 2022