Russian fighter pilots involved in an encounter with a U.S. drone that resulted in its crash were given state awards, the Defense Ministry announced Friday. The move appears to signal Moscow’s intention to adopt a more aggressive stance toward future U.S. surveillance flights.
“Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu presented state awards to the Su-27 pilots who prevented an American MQ-9 drone from violating (Russia’s) temporary airspace,” the ministry said.
The U.S. military said it ditched the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in the Black Sea on Tuesday after a pair of Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the surveillance drone and then one of them struck its propeller while it was flying in international airspace. Moscow has denied that its warplanes hit the drone, alleging that it crashed while making a sharp maneuver. It said that its warplanes reacted to a violation of a no-flight zone Russia has established in the area near Crimea amid the fighting in Ukraine.
On Friday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu lauded the pilots for preventing the drone from flying into the area that Moscow has banned for flights. The Defense Ministry said the ban was “in line with international norms.” Moscow reiterated its stance that the pilots “did not use on-board weapons, made no contact with the UAV and safely returned to their home airfield.”
Moscow’s announcement comes a day after the U.S. military released a declassified 42-second video showing a Russian Su-27 fighter jet approaching the back of the U.S. drone and releasing fuel as it passes in a maneuver that appeared to be aimed at blinding the drone’s optical instruments to drive it from the area.
On a second approach, either the same jet or another Russian Su-27 that had been shadowing the MQ-9 struck the drone’s propeller, damaging a blade, according to the U.S. military, which said it then ditched the drone in the sea. The video excerpt does not show the collision, although it does show the damage to the propeller.
The top U.S. and Russian defense and military leaders spoke Wednesday about the destruction of the drone, underscoring the event’s seriousness. The calls between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russian General Staff, were the first since October.
While calling out Russia for “reckless” action, the White House also tried to avoid exacerbating tensions. U.S. officials stressed that lines of communication with Moscow remain open.
Top White House national security spokesman John Kirby told CBS News that the incident will not deter missions and will not lead to U.S. military escorts of future drone flights.
“This was a deliberate, aggressive, overly aggressive move by this pilot,” Kirby told CBS News on this week’s episode of “The Takeout.”
Kirby said if the Russians manage to recover the wreckage of the MQ-9 Reaper drone from the Black Sea, it would yield almost nothing of value.
“They won’t find anything of any intrinsic value, I can assure you of that,” Kirby said. “We took steps to mitigate any intelligence collection capability. Whatever would be left on the surface would likely be … pieces of wings or the fuselage. Doubtful that’s going to be of any value to anybody. In terms of intelligence … we are not concerned that they’re going to get anything of value. The water they’re in the Black Sea right there is 4,000 to 5,000 feet deep. Anything of value, the hardware on the drone, will have sunk. I find it very unlikely that they’re going to be able to recover anything like that.”
Russian officials also emphasized the need to maintain lines of communication, but they harshly denounced the U.S. action as arrogant disregard of Moscow’s no-flight zone.
“This is a clear sign that Russia will keep downing the American drones,” pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov wrote in a commentary on the award announcement. “This decision will receive a strong support from the Russian society that wants the government to toughen its policy.”
Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about U.S. intelligence flights close to Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 amid strong international condemnation. The Kremlin has charged the U.S. and its allies of effectively becoming engaged in the conflict by providing weapons and sharing intelligence with Kyiv.
Some Russian officials charged that the U.S. surveillance flights helped gather intelligence that allowed Ukraine to strike Russian targets.
AFP contributed to this report.
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