Moscow will work to retrieve the wreckage of an American drone that crashed into the Black Sea after Washington said a Russian fighter jet collided with it, a top Russian official said Wednesday. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday afternoon that the drone likely broke up in the crash and its debris was under thousands of feet of water in the Black Sea.
“That’s U.S. property,” Milley said during a press conference at the Pentagon. “… There’s probably not a lot to recover, frankly.”
According to a U.S. official, the Russians reached the site of the debris in the past 24 hours, CBS News’ Eleanor Watson reports. The Russians will probably be able to collect some pieces of the debris, like metal chunks, the official said.
The U.S. took mitigating measures to prevent the loss of any sensitive intelligence, Milley said. “We are quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value,” he said.
Appearing with Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that he spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, but Austin said he wouldn’t provide details of their discussion.
“The United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows, and it is incumbent upon Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner,” Austin told reporters, repeating an earlier statement.
Milley acknowledged the U.S. doesn’t have any Navy ships in the Black Sea for a recovery operation. He also said officials likely wouldn’t know details about the debris for days and any recovery operation would be “very difficult” with some debris sinking to a depth of at least 4,000 feet.
“If there is reason to believe that we could recover something, then we’ll work up options for the secretary and the president to consider, and we’ll move from there,” Milley said, noting the U.S. has allies in the region.
The Black Sea is located in the southeastern part of Europe, with Ukraine to its north, Russia and the ex-Soviet country of Georgia to its east and NATO members Turkey to its south and Bulgaria and Romania to its west.
According to a U.S. official, the Navy has put a salvage unit on alert in Europe, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports. A ship could access the Black Sea from the Mediterranean Sea by going through several other bodies of water.
Earlier Wednesday, Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev said in televised remarks, “I don’t know whether we’ll be able to retrieve it or not but it has to be done. And we will certainly work on it.”
“I am hoping for success, of course.”
The head of Russia’s SVR intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, said the country has “technical” capabilities to retrieve the drone.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby has said the U.S. was trying to prevent the fallen drone from getting into the wrong hands.
“We’ve taken steps to protect our equities with respect to that particular drone — that particular aircraft,” Kirby told CNN.
But he also said the drone crashed into “very, very deep water.”
“We’re still assessing whether there can be any recovery effort mounted. There may not be,” Kirby said.
Austin had said Wednesday morning the collision is part of a pattern of “risky” actions. And Moscow warned against “hostile” U.S. flights as tensions simmered between the two countries.
“This hazardous episode is a part of a pattern of aggressive, risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace,” Austin said at the start of a meeting of countries supporting Ukraine’s fight against invading Russian forces.
Though Russia has denied its Su-27 plane clipped the propeller of the unmanned drone, Kyiv said the incident over international waters was a Kremlin attempt to widen the Ukraine conflict.
The crash on Tuesday added fresh tensions between Moscow and Western allies.
“We assume that the United States will refrain from further speculation in the media and stop flights near Russian borders,” Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said Wednesday.
“We consider any action with the use of U.S. weaponry as openly hostile,” he wrote on social media channel Telegram.
Russia’s defense ministry said Tuesday it scrambled fighter jets following the detection of a U.S. drone over the Black Sea and denied causing the crash.
The Pentagon said its drone was on a routine mission when it was intercepted “in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” while Russia countered the aircraft was out of control and said its jets had no contact with it.
“Obviously, we refute the Russians’ denial,” Kirby said.
The incident happened 75 miles southwest of the Crimean Peninsula, a part of Ukraine seized by Russia, Martin reports.
For more than half an hour Tuesday morning, two Russian jets made a total of 19 passes on the drone, popping up in front of it to blast it with their jet exhaust and trying to drench it with their fuel.
One of the jets approached from the rear, and U.S. officials believe the pilot meant to come up in front of the drone so it would fly into the fuel cloud — but pulled up too soon and clipped the drone’s propeller, which is located in the back, Martin reports.
“Just bad piloting,” one official said, according to Martin.
Russian intercepts over the Black Sea are common, Kirby said in Washington, but this one “is noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional it was, indeed reckless that it was.”
For Ukraine, however, the incident was evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to raise the stakes of the yearlong conflict in Ukraine and draw in Washington.
“The incident with the American MQ-9 Reaper UAV, provoked by russia in the Black Sea, is putin’s signal of readiness to expand the conflict zone with the involvement of other parties,” Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council secretary Oleksiy Danilov said on Twitter.
“The purpose of this all-in tactic is to always be raising the stakes,” he added.
NATO diplomats in Brussels confirmed the incident, but said they did not expect it to immediately escalate into a further confrontation.
A Western military source, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said diplomatic channels between Russia and the United States could help limit any fallout.
“To my mind, diplomatic channels will mitigate this,” the source said.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has led to heightened fears of a direct confrontation between Moscow and the NATO alliance, which has been arming Kyiv to help it defend itself.
Reports of a missile strike in eastern Poland in November briefly caused alarm before Western military sources concluded it was a Ukrainian air defense missile, not a Russian one.
During a press conference Tuesday at the Pentagon, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder wouldn’t say whether the drone was armed and referred to the unmanned aircraft as a MQ-9, but not a Reaper. The U.S. uses MQ-9 Reapers for both surveillance and strikes and has operated the drones in a variety of locations, including in the Middle East and Africa.
“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 Air Force Gen. James Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa.
“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash,” he said.
Ryder said the drone was “unflyable and uncontrollable so we brought it down,” adding that the collision also likely damaged the Russian aircraft, which he said was able to land following the incident.
Several U.S. Reapers have been lost in recent years, including to hostile fire.
One was shot down in 2019 over Yemen with a surface-to-air missile fired by Houthi rebels, U.S. Central Command said at the time.
Reapers can be armed with Hellfire missiles as well as laser-guided bombs and can fly for more than 1,100 miles at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet, according to the Air Force.
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