Moscow said Wednesday that it will try to retrieve the wreckage of a U.S. surveillance drone that crashed into the Black Sea after a collision with a Russian jet fighter.
“I don’t know if we can get them or not,” Kremlin Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said of the drone fragments, “but it has to be done, and we’ll surely engage in it. I hope for success, of course.”
Patrushev said that the presence of the MQ-9 Reaper drone in part of Russia’s self-declared Black Sea exclusion zone on Tuesday was “proof” that the United States military is “directly participating” in the Ukraine War. U.S. officials, while arming and providing intelligence for the Ukrainian war effort, have repeatedly rejected Russian charges of direct U.S. involvement.
The incident was the first known military altercation between Russia and the United States since the Ukraine war began, and has further inflamed what’s become a dangerously fraught relationship between powers.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains highly sensitive, said that, after Tuesday’s collision badly disabled the unarmed drone, Air Force personnel brought it down approximately 56 nautical miles southwest of Crimea’s southern tip. The peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed from Ukraine in 2014, is home to the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet and an array of other military assets. Ukrainian leaders, having vowed to retake the strategically important landmass, have carried out a handful of attacks there.
Asked whether the Biden administration was concerned that what was the first direct clash between the Russian and U.S. militaries since the year-long war began could lead to escalation, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CNN that “when you have a situation like this, it does increase the risk of miscalculation and misunderstanding. And the last thing that we want … is for this war in Ukraine to escalate” between the United States and Russia. “It would be absolutely horrible.”
The incident began early Tuesday morning, when two Russia fighter jets approached the drone, which had been launched from Romania by U.S. personnel stationed there. After repeatedly dumping fuel on the U.S. aircraft, one of the jets collided with the propeller on the rear of the drone in what Kirby, in a separate statement to The Post, said the United States now assesses was an “inadvertent” crash by a reckless and unprofessional Russian pilot.
Ground-based U.S. pilots directing the drone remotely determined it was not able to continue flying and crashed it into the sea.
“I’m not sure we’re going to be able to recover it,” Kirby told CNN. “It fell into the Black Sea, in very, very deep water. So we’re still assessing whether there can be a recovery effort. There may not be.”
Entrance into the Black Sea of warships that are not home-based there is banned during wartime by an international convention, and there have been no U.S. naval vessels there since before the war began.
The U.S. defense official said that, before the drone was put down, operators took steps to wipe its electronics in hopes of rendering the wreckage useless for intelligence collection. Yet while efforts were made before the crash to “minimize” any useful content Russia might obtain from the drone, those steps are “not foolproof,” Kirby said. “We did the best we could to minimize any intelligence value that might come from anybody else getting their hands” on it.
Rejecting Russia’s claim to expanded airspace boundaries during what it calls a “special military operation,” Kirby said the United States was “flying well outside airspace of Ukraine and any other country. The Black Sea doesn’t belong to Russia,” he said, and the drone is U.S. property.
“It was in international airspace … It is not uncommon, nor has it been since the beginning of this war, for us to conduct these kinds of flights,” he said. “It is also not uncommon for the Russians to try to … harass them,” although this was the first time they “actually struck” one.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergei Naryshkin said there were “technical possibilities” for Russia to retrieve fragments of the downed drone, and that the United States was already “very actively” performing reconnaissance in the region, “using all means in terms of space, visual reconnaissance and radio intelligence,” according to Russia’s Interfax news service.
“We know it quite in detail and understand what kind of goals in connection with intelligence activities and the use of technical devices the U.S. has, and we are trying to identify those sites that interest them the most,” Naryshkin said.
The State Department on Tuesday summoned Russia’s ambassador in Washington to lodge a protest, which was also delivered by U.S. ambassador Lynne Tracy in Moscow.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters there Wednesday that “relations between Russia and the U.S. are at a low point.” But, he said, “Russia has never refused and does not refuse to engage in constructive dialogue.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, hosting a virtual session of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group of some 50 nations aiding Ukraine’s war effort, began the meeting with a statement on what he called “a troubling episode” over the Black Sea. He denounced what he called Russian pilots’ “pattern of aggressive, risky and unsafe actions” in international airspace, and vowed that U.S. military operations would continue “wherever international law allows.”