The crash of a US reconnaissance drone over the Black Sea has further intensified tensions between Washington and Moscow over the Ukraine war. The US government blamed Russia for the crash on Tuesday and summoned the Russian ambassador to Washington. For its part, Moscow has denied responsibility for the crash of the MQ-9 Reaper drone.
According to the US armed forces, the drone was on a routine reconnaissance flight on Tuesday morning. Two Russian Su-27 fighter jets intercepted them in international airspace over the Black Sea in a "dangerous and unprofessional" manner. The fighter jets first dumped fuel on the drone, said the US Armed Forces' Regional Europe Headquarters in Stuttgart (US Eucom). Then one of the Russian pilots touched the propeller of the drone, which then crashed.
"Our MQ-9 aircraft was performing routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and rammed by a Russian aircraft," said US Air Force General James Hecker. "This resulted in the crash and complete loss of the MQ-9." Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said the Russian fighter jet "damaged" the drone's propeller. The unmanned aerial vehicle was then "not airworthy" and "uncontrollable" and was then brought down by the US armed forces.
According to Ryder, the Russian fighter jets had previously flown alongside the drone for around 30 to 40 minutes. The Russian plane was probably also damaged by the collision with the drone propeller, but was able to land at an undisclosed location.
After the incident, the US State Department announced that it had summoned the Russian ambassador to Washington. The United States wanted to express its "strong objection to this dangerous, unprofessional interception" of the drone, said ministry spokesman Ned Price. In Moscow, US Ambassador Lynne Tracy had already sent a "strong message" to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
However, the Russian Ministry of Defense denied that its fighter jets were responsible for the crash of the drone. The fighter pilots would have intercepted the US drone. But there was no "contact" whatsoever, and the fighter jets did not use their weapons either.
Rather, after an "abrupt maneuver" the US drone went into an "uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude" and then hit the water surface, Moscow said. The drone was discovered "in the Crimean Peninsula zone", which is annexed by Russia. The unmanned aerial vehicle flew "in the direction" of the Russian border.
The US National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, immediately dismissed the statements made by Russia. "We reject Russia's denial," he told CNN. At the same time, he announced that the United States had "taken action" to recover the aircraft. "Obviously we don't want anyone else getting their hands on it."
NATO diplomats in Brussels said they did not expect an escalation after the incident. A Western military official told the AFP news agency that diplomatic channels between Russia and the United States should help calm the situation. "I assume that diplomatic channels will mitigate that."
The Black Sea includes Ukraine, against which Russia is at war, and the Crimean Peninsula. The US has long been flying reconnaissance flights over the Black Sea, observing Russian naval units. According to the Pentagon, Russian fighter jets intercept US flights again and again. But that usually only means that fighter jets accompany flights for a while and possibly ask them to turn around.
Reaper drones can be used for surveillance flights, but also for missile and laser-guided bomb attacks. In recent years, the US armed forces have lost several drones of this type - either through crashes or enemy fire.