Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on and collided with an American surveillance drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday, U.S. military officials said, forcing it down and marking the first direct military clash between Russia and the United States since the beginning of the Ukraine war.
The incident, occurring around 7 a.m. local time, left Air Force personnel remotely operating the MQ-9 Reaper with no choice but to crash the aircraft in international waters, U.S. officials said. They characterized the encounter as part of a "pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots" while interacting with American and allied aircraft in international airspace, and warned that such provocations could lead to "miscalculation and unintended escalation" between the two powers.
Russia denied responsibility and faulted the American side for breaching what it called a "temporary" boundary.
The confrontation underscored the high-stakes risks of the conflict. While arming Kyiv and providing its battlefield efforts with regular overhead intelligence, the United States and NATO say they have no direct involvement in what Moscow has characterized as a Western attempt to destroy Russia.
In addition to drone surveillance and satellites, NATO flies combat air patrols and early-warning radar planes just outside Ukrainian territory in NATO and international airspace. Russian warplanes generally stay out of the air over Ukraine but regularly fly over the Black Sea, where U.S. officials say noncontact "interceptions" with Western aircraft are common.
"Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9," said Gen. James B. Hecker, a senior military official overseeing Air Force operations in the region. "In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash."
A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, told reporters that the two Russian Su-27s were first seen in the vicinity of the MQ-9 about 30 to 40 minutes before American pilots brought it down. He declined to say whether the drone was armed, what its mission was or where in the Black Sea it splashed down. Video of the incident recorded by the MQ-9 must go through a declassification process before officials determine whether to release it publicly, he said. It's unclear how long that will take.
Ryder declined to detail other similar incidents that match the pattern of dangerous activity U.S. military officials described.
In a statement, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that, "as a result of sharp maneuvering," the drone was observed by Russian pilots in "uncontrolled flight" before losing altitude and crashing into the sea. Jets were scrambled, officials said, when the American aircraft was detected flying "in the direction of the state border of the Russian Federation" with its transponders turned off, what they characterized as a violation of "temporary" boundaries established by Moscow for its "special military operation" in Ukraine.
"The Russian fighters did not use airborne weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle and returned safely to their base airfield," the statement said.
Ryder rejected Moscow's depiction of the encounter, saying the Russian jet "essentially ran into the MQ-9" and, as a result, probably suffered damage, too.
A State Department spokesman, Ned Price, told reporters that senior U.S. officials intended to communicate "our strong objections."
"We are summoning the Russian ambassador to the department, where we will convey this message," Price said, adding that, in Moscow, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Lynne M. Tracy, had relayed the Biden administration's dissatisfaction to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The flare-up between Washington and Moscow comes as national polling indicates some slippage in what has been broad support for the Biden administration's campaign to provide U.S. arms and other assistance to Ukraine. Although leaders of both political parties in Congress continue to back funding Kyiv's resistance, one leading presidential candidate, Donald Trump, and another top Republican, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have declared that backing Ukraine in the war against Russia is not in the United States' strategic interests.
In a clear sign of the GOP's split over the war, Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), the Senate Armed Services Committee's top Republican, issued a statement criticizing those who would seek to "appease" Russian President Vladimir Putin. "This incident," Wicker said, "should serve as a wake-up call to isolationists in the United States that it is in our national interest to treat Putin as the threat he truly is."
In the House, the Armed Services Committee chairman, Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), struck a similar tone, saying in a statement circulated on Twitter that "Putin & his cronies are attempting to test our resolve - a test that we cannot afford to fail."
A leading critic of President Biden's aid program, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), lamented, however, what he called the "treacherous reality" of American support for the war and his fear that the U.S. military will become more deeply entangled in the fighting. He called on Biden "to end our involvement in this war before the counting of lost dollars in this conflict becomes the counting of dead Americans in Ukraine."
White House spokesman John Kirby said Biden was briefed about the incident Tuesday morning by national security adviser Jake Sullivan. While intercepts of aircraft happen with some frequency, Kirby said, "this one, obviously, is noteworthy because of how unsafe [and] indeed reckless" the Su-27s were "in causing the downing of one of our aircraft."
The U.S. and Russian militaries set up years ago a phone line for the "deconfliction" of air operations to avoid collisions and other incidents that could prompt a crisis. Kirby said that the Black Sea is "an enormous body of water" and that U.S. aircraft have been flying in international airspace there "consistently" for a year.
"We're going to continue to do that," Kirby said. "And we don't need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace."
No wreckage from the crash site had been recovered by Tuesday evening, and it was unclear whether the United States would be able to do so. No American military vessel has been in the Black Sea since Russia renewed its invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago, according to USNI News, an independent news site that tracks U.S. naval movements.
A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the matter is highly sensitive, agreed that it would be exceedingly difficult for the Pentagon to salvage the drone. Russia has mined portions of the Black Sea in the past, Ukrainian officials have said, notably around Crimea.
Russia's Su-27 Flanker has been in service since the 1980s, and is similar in size and capabilities to the American F-15 fighter jet. Before Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine last year, Su-27s were used to intercept a variety of other American aircraft near Crimea, including a 2018 incident the Pentagon deemed unsafe involving a Navy E-P3 electronic signals surveillance plane.
The Reaper, made by General Atomics, has conducted surveillance and strike missions over Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and beyond. Ukrainian officials have expressed interest in obtaining some from the United States, but the Biden administration has rejected the idea, citing the danger posed by Russian air defenses, concerns about the technology aboard falling into Russian hands and the length of time it would take to train Ukrainian pilots.
In January, General Atomics offered to provide Ukraine with two Reapers for a dollar, with the caveat that the government in Kyiv would need to find $10 million to cover the costs of preparing and shipping the aircraft and another $8 million per year to cover regular maintenance. The Biden administration would have approval authority over any deal and has opted instead to send smaller one-way attack drones.
Philip Breedlove, a retired Air Force general and former supreme allied commander of NATO, said Tuesday that such actions by the Russians are not new, and he wouldn't rule out that the incident was born from a "stupid mistake."
"This could be as simple as poor airmanship, poor professionalism," he said.
If the collision was deliberate, though - which Breedlove emphasized there's no evidence of so far - then it is significant and indicates that "Russia is trying to change the narrative" by striking a blow on the United States. "That would be concerning," he added. "That they are so desperate to send that message that they actually strike something American."
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The Washington Post's Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, and Anumita Kaur in Washington contributed to this report.