US, Russia ratchet up rhetoric over downing of surveillance drone near Ukraine

After Russian warplanes down flight over Black Sea, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says Washington to continue operating ‘wherever international law allows’

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia and the United States ratcheted up their confrontational rhetoric Wednesday over a US surveillance drone that encountered Russian warplanes and crashed near Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin has illegally annexed. At the same time, the two countries’ defense chiefs opened a dialogue about the incident.

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. US officials said the incident showed Russia’s aggressive and risky behavior and pledged to continue their surveillance.

Russia has long voiced concern about US surveillance flights near its borders, but Tuesday’s incident signaled 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 destabilize the situation and lead to more direct confrontations.

US Defense 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.

Army Gen. 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 behavior was intentional,” but whether the Russian warplane’s collision with the MQ-9 Reaper drone was intentional was still unclear.

A US MQ-9 drone is on display during an air show at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, January 23, 2018. (Massoud Hossaini/AP)

The Russian Defense 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. The Kremlin has repeatedly said the United States and other NATO members have become direct war participants by supplying weapons and intelligence to the Kyiv government and pressuring it not to negotiate peace.

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 4,000 to 5,000 feet (1,200 to 1,500 meters) 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 drone was in international airspace when the Russian warplane struck its propeller. US officials accused Russia of trying to intercept the unmanned aircraft, although its presence over the Black Sea — a strategic military and economic area for both Russia and Ukraine — was not uncommon.

“It is also not uncommon for the Russians to try to intercept them,” Kirby said, adding that such an encounter “does increase the risk of miscalculations, misunderstandings.”

Kirby said the US “took steps to protect the information and to protect, to minimize 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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks as Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov sits near during a meeting of the Prosecutor General’s Office Board in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Pavel Bednyakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated the Defense Ministry’s statement that Russian jets didn’t use their weapons or hit the drone. He repeated his description of US-Russia relations as at their lowest point but added that “Russia has never rejected a constructive dialogue, and it’s not rejecting it now.”

In Washington, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov expressed concern about “the unacceptable actions of the United States military in the close proximity to our borders.”

“What do they do thousands of miles away from the United States?” he said in remarks his embassy released. “The answer is obvious — they gather intelligence which is later used by the Kyiv regime to attack our armed forces and territory.”

He noted “it is important that the lines of communication should remain open,” emphasizing that “Russia does not seek confrontation and stands for pragmatic cooperation in the interests of the peoples of our countries.”

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.

“The last thing that anybody should want is for this war in Ukraine to escalate to become something between the United States and Russia,” Kirby said, speaking Wednesday on CNN.

“We’ve been working very, very hard throughout the beginning of this conflict … to make sure that it doesn’t escalate.”

The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, tweeted the drone incident was “a signal from Putin that he is ready to expand the conflict zone, with drawing other parties in.”

In another tussle, the UK Defense Ministry said British and German fighter jets were scrambled Tuesday to intercept a Russian aircraft near Estonian airspace. The UK and Germany are conducting joint air policing missions in Estonia as part of NATO’s bolstering of its eastern flank.

In this handout photo provided by the Ministry of Defence, British and German air force fighter jets are scrambled to intercept a Russian aircraft flying close to Estonian airspace, Tuesday, March 14, 2023. Britain’s defense ministry said the Typhoon jets responded Tuesday after a Russian air-to-air refueling aircraft failed to communicate with Estonian air traffic control. The Russian plane didn’t enter the airspace of Estonia, a NATO member. (Ministry of Defence via AP)

The ministry said the Typhoon jets responded after a Russian refueling aircraft failed to communicate with Estonian air traffic control. The Russian plane did not enter the airspace of Estonia, a NATO member.

In Ukraine, at least three civilians were killed and another 23 wounded in strikes over the previous 24 hours, the presidential office said.

In partially occupied Donetsk province, where much of the heaviest fighting has been concentrated, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said 14 cities and villages were shelled. That included Kramatorsk, where some Ukrainian forces are based.

In embattled Bakhmut, where a Russian assault has continued for months, Ukrainian forces have successfully fought for northern parts of the city, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said.

In the northeastern Kharkiv region, one person was killed and another was wounded in Vovchansk, a city near the border with Russia. Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said Russian forces also hit a civilian area in Kharkiv city.

Mayor Ihor Terekhov said on Ukrainian television a boarding school and an apartment building were damaged.

In the south, Russian forces shelled the city of Kherson seven times in the last 24 hours, hitting an infrastructure facility and residential buildings and wounding four people. In Dnipropetrovsk province, Russian forces shelled Nikopol and Marhanets, towns located across a river from the shut-down Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

In another development, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy replaced more governors. Without giving a reason, Zelenskyy dismissed the heads of the Luhansk, Odesa and Khmelnytskyi regions.

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