Pentagon Rejects Russian Airspace Claims after Downing of U.S. Drone

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
The Pentagon is seen from the air in Washington, U.S., March 3, 2022.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday that the U.S. military would “continue to fly and operate wherever international law allows,” rejecting Moscow’s claim of a self-declared exclusion zone over extended parts of the Black Sea the day after a U.S. drone was downed following an encounter there with Russian warplanes.

The Kremlin said it would try to retrieve the wreckage of the surveillance drone, which the Biden administration said was crashed in international waters by its operators after a “reckless” Russian pilot, perhaps unintentionally, caused a collision and rendered it unflyable. Russia denied the assertion and said the drone’s presence in the area a day earlier proved that the U.S. military was “directly participating” in the Ukraine war.

The controversy, the first known altercation between U.S. and Russian forces since that conflict began, has further roiled what’s become a dangerously fraught relationship between the superpowers. On Wednesday, it led Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to call their Russian counterparts in the first contacts between the two militaries in months. But there was no indication they had come to agreement on what happened or measures to avoid it in the future, leaving open the possibility of further confrontation.

Instead, both sides said the incident had the potential to escalate into a direct conflict. “That’s why I believe it’s important to keep the lines of communication open,” Austin said. “I think that will help to prevent miscalculation going forward.”

Milley called the clash part of a recent pattern of behavior by the Russians that also included aggressive acts toward aircraft from Britain and other nations. “We have to figure out exactly what the way ahead is,” he said, speaking with Austin at a news conference following a virtual meeting of the group of more than 50 nations aiding Ukraine’s war against Russia’s invading forces.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a Russian television interviewer that “any incidents that provoke a clash between two superpowers, two nuclear powers, the largest ones in the world, always present very serious risks.” The Americans, he said, “cannot but understand this.”

The confrontation began early Tuesday morning, when two Russian 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, the Pentagon maintains.

A U.S. defense official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains highly sensitive, said that Air Force personnel brought the badly disabled, unarmed aircraft down approximately 56 nautical miles southwest of Crimea’s southern tip. The peninsula, which the Kremlin illegally 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.

A Russian statement issued Tuesday after the U.S. officials disclosed the incident said that the drone was flying with its transponder turned off and “in violation of the boundaries of the temporary airspace use area, defined in order to carry out the special military operation, which has been conveyed to all airspace users and published in accordance to the international norms.” The Kremlin, reluctant to acknowledge how poorly its military has performed in Ukraine, often refers to its invasion as a “special” operation.

Under international law, territorial waters extend 12 miles from shore. There is no “international norm” governing the unilateral declaration of exclusive airspace and maritime zones beyond recognized limits in times of conflict, and the subject has been historically controversial.

A second U.S. defense official disputed every aspect of the Russian statement, saying that “the MQ-9 Reaper was flying with its transponder on, squawking loud and clear, and was flying lawfully in international airspace approximately 50 miles from the Crimean coast in the Black Sea when it was unsafely and unprofessionally intercepted by the Russians. The only party in this incident violating international norms were the Russian pilots who intercepted and damaged the U.S. aircraft.”

Russia’s initial intercept of the aircraft in international airspace was deliberate, Milley said, characterizing the aggressive behavior of its fighter pilots as “very unprofessional and unsafe.” But he said he was “not so sure” that one Russian pilot had intended to clip the drone propeller, saying “we’re not positive of that yet.”

“I believe at this point, we should investigate this incident and move on from there,” Milley said. “But we will continue to exercise our rights in international airspace.”

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. military “routinely operated” in the Black Sea region before the invasion of the Ukraine,” and it “will continue to operate in the Black Sea region in the future.” He did not say if manned U.S. aircraft have flown over the Black Sea throughout the last year.

“The Black Sea is a critical international seaway supporting many of our NATO allies, including Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, and does not belong to any one country,” Ryder said.

Amid the escalating tensions, attention focused on what would happen to the wreckage of the drone, and the sophisticated technology aboard it.

“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.” He added that the presence of the MQ-9 Reaper drone proved the U.S. military was participating in the war.

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.

U.S. officials, while arming Ukraine and providing intelligence, have repeatedly rejected Russian charges of direct U.S. involvement and did so again on Wednesday.

Speaking with the media during a visit to Ethiopia’s capital, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to address Patrushev’s assertions, saying the incident is being investigated and that “we’ll look to the investigation to draw any conclusions about what the intent might’ve been.”

Milley, at the news conference, said that he was confident nothing of importance remained on the drone, and said that “we know where [the debris] is.” He said the drone had crashed in 4,000 to 5,000 feet of water, a depth where “any recovery operation is difficult.”

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.

But Milley suggested that the United States has “a lot of allies and friends” in the region that could assist.

Milley said that measures had been taken to make sure that the drone “is no longer of value” if Russia recovers it. “We’ll work through recovery operations,” he said. “It probably broke up. There’s probably not a lot to recover, frankly.”

The first U.S. defense official said that, before the drone was downed, operators took steps to wipe its electronics in hopes of rendering the wreckage useless for intelligence collection. But those steps are “not foolproof,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in an interview with CNN. “We did the best we could to minimize any intelligence value that might come from anybody else getting their hands” on it.

American officials were still going through videos and photos transmitted by the drone before the crash, Austin said, and the Pentagon would eventually “release what we can.” But “in terms of what the video shows, we remain confident in the facts that we have conveyed thus far in terms of what happened.”

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The Washington Post’s John Hudson in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.