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US releases video of drone that crashed over Black Sea

The U.S. military’s European Command has released footage of the Tuesday encounter between a U.S. surveillance drone and a Russian fighter jet as it played out over the Black Sea. The newly declassified video depicts critical moments in the mid-air encounter, which the Pentagon said lasted 30-40 minutes.  (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense/Abaca via ZUMA Press/TNS)
By Dan Lamothe Washington Post

The U.S. military on Thursday released video of what it says is a Russian fighter jet clipping an American surveillance drone over the Black Sea, a clash that has raised alarm about the United States becoming more deeply drawn into the Ukraine war while fueling a series of recriminations between Washington and Moscow.

The incident occurred Tuesday with two Russian Su-27 fighter jets buzzing the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper and dumping fuel on it while flying in what the Pentagon maintains is international airspace. One of the jets collided with the propeller mounted on the rear of the drone, forcing its remote operators to bring down the aircraft, U.S. officials have said.

The 42-second, full-color footage appears to refute Russia’s claims that neither fighter hit the drone. After U.S. military officials publicly disclosed the encounter on Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement saying that, after the drone was observed having breached Moscow’s self-declared exclusion zone, it made “sharp maneuvers,” entered “uncontrolled flight” and crashed into the sea.

U.S. officials say that, when incident occurred, the Reaper was about 50 miles off the coast of Crimea. Territorial waters extend 12 miles from the shore. The Ukrainian peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014, is home to the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet and a wealth of other military assets.

The encounter has further strained a dangerously tense relationship between nuclear powers, with the State Department issuing formal objections, and senior Pentagon leaders apprising their Russian counterparts of the Biden administration’s unequivocal view that international airspace is open to all nations. And while U.S. officials have said the collision could have been an unintentional consequence of the Russian pilots’ “reckless” intercept, both sides have forcefully warned that the altercation had the potential to spiral into a direct conflict.

The Kremlin made no immediate statements about the video, and the Russian Embassy in Washington did not return a message seeking an official response.

A pro-Kremlin blogger appeared on Thursday to signal how Russia could alter its messaging in light of the video’s release. The footage shows the drone being doused with jet fuel and sustaining damage to its propeller, the blogger acknowledged on Telegram, attributing the “deformation of one of the blades” to the impact of jet fuel.

The footage was circulated by the U.S. government after both countries indicated the day before that they may attempt to salvage the wreckage. Whether - and how - that would occur remained unclear, however.

U.S. officials have said what’s left of the drone is believed to be submerged in 4,000 to 5,000 feet of water, a depth that would challenge recovery even in ideal circumstances. Entrance into the Black Sea by any warships not home-based there is banned during wartime by an international convention. There have been no U.S. naval vessels in region since before the war began, though Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that the United States has “friends” nearby who could help.

Milley said that steps had been taken to wipe the drone’s electronics and render the wreckage useless should Russia attempt to raise the craft with hopes of exploiting any intelligence on board, though another senior U.S. official, White House spokesman John Kirby, noted that such measures are “not foolproof.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that “it is the prerogative” of Russia’s military leaders to determine whether an attempt is made to surface the drone. “If they deem it necessary to do so in the Black Sea for the benefit of our interests and our security, they will do it,” he said.

Russian vessels already have been observed in the vicinity, a U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity because of the extreme sensitivity surrounding the matter.

The video appears to show two separate passes by the Russian jets, which in each instance spray a cloudy white stream against the sky’s bright blue backdrop and the rippling water below. U.S. officials have said the Su-27s dumped fuel on the drone before one struck it, rendering it too badly damaged to stay aloft.

In both of the passes, a jet is seen zooming in from behind the drone, which is clear because the propeller is on the back of the aircraft. The video transmission appears to be interrupted immediately after the first pass, and then reappears showing that the propeller is still spinning and in working order.

In the second pass, the U.S. military said, more fuel was dumped on the MQ-9 before the jet collides with it. In a statement Thursday, U.S. military officials said the video feed was lost for about 60 seconds after the second pass, and then reappeared showing the propeller slowing to a stop.

Existence of the footage had been referenced previously by senior U.S. officials, who said they were working to declassify what they could and disclose it publicly.

“In terms of what the video shows, we remain confident in the facts that we have conveyed thus far in terms of what happened,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Wednesday.

Austin has described the incident as “dangerous and reckless and unprofessional,” calling it part of a pattern of “risky and unsafe actions” by Russian pilots in international airspace. He told reporters Wednesday that the United States would continue to fly where international law allows, rejecting Russia’s declaration of an exclusion zone over extended parts of the Black Sea.

There is no indication the two sides have reached an agreement on what constitutes international airspace.

Russian officials said in a statement released Tuesday that the drone was flying with its transponder turned off and “in violation of the boundaries of the temporary airspace use area” that Russia has declared to carry out a “special military operation,” a euphemism for its invasion of Ukraine. The Russians said this had been “conveyed to all airspace users and published in accordance to the international norms.”

There is no “international norm,” however, governing the unilateral declaration of exclusive airspace and maritime zones in times of conflict. Attempting to expand territorial airspace has long been highly controversial, and rejected when other nations have tried it.

Alarm over the prospect of escalation appeared unchanged Thursday. Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, seeming to respond to comments made on a conservative cable news show by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), said remarks by some American lawmakers “go beyond common sense.” Graham had told the Fox News personality Sean Hannity that the United States should hold the Russian leadership to account “and say ‘if you ever get near another U.S. asset flying in international waters, your aircraft will be shot down.’”

Antonov responded by noting that “A deliberate attack on a Russian aircraft in neutral airspace is not just a crime according to international law, but also an open declaration of war against the largest nuclear power.”