A Russian Su-27 approaches the back of the MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea. The Pentagon has released footage of what it says is a Russian military aircraft conducting an intercept of a US Air Force surveillance drone in international airspace over the Black Sea. Russia criticized the US for non-compliance with the declared flight restriction zone set by Russia..
Communications between the Russian and US defense ministers over the incident in which a US drone crashed into the Black Sea hinted that both sides are trying to avoid an escalation of the situation despite showing no compromise on words, and the following encounter may focus on retrieving and dealing with the wreckage, analysts said.
Amid global attention, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held a phone conversation on Wednesday to exchange views on the incident in which a US drone crashed into the Black Sea. Shoigu criticized the US for non-compliance with the declared flight restriction zone set by Russia and the strengthened US intelligence activities against it, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The Pentagon confirmed the conversation between the two ministers and criticized the Russian air force’s “unprofessional, dangerous and reckless behavior” in “international airspace over the Black Sea.” It also emphasized in a release that the US will “continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.”
Early on Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said that Russian fighter jets were scrambled to identify a US MQ-9 drone approaching the Russian state border, and the US drone crashed into the Black Sea due to its own sharp maneuvering. However, the US claimed that two Russian Su-27 jets intercepted its drone in international airspace before one collided with it.
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The current war of words seems fierce but the exchanges between the defense ministers of Russia and the US actually reflect their shared purpose of properly handling the incident and avoiding an escalation of the situation to a larger-scale military clash, Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times on Thursday.
The incident marks the first time Russian and US military aircraft have come into direct physical contact since the Russia-Ukraine conflict started in 2022, and the international community has paid close attention to it with growing worries over direct confrontation between Russia and the US over the Ukraine crisis.
Analysts said that the current main focus of the incident lies in dealing with the drone wreckage, as senior Russian officials noted that Russia will try to retrieve the remains and that it is technically possible to study the wreckage.
Meanwhile, US national Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby was cited by CNN as saying that the US has taken steps to protect its “equities with respect to that particular drone.”
What really worries the US is that Russia may study the wreckage and find data parameters about US drones from some sensitive parts of its debris, Song said.
Moreover, the US may see Russia’s capturing of the wreckage as a humiliation, which is why it will use diplomatic and military channels to insist on the remains being returned, said the expert.
The US erased sensitive software on the drone remotely before it crashed to prevent Russia from collecting secret information, CNN reported. It also cited a Navy official as saying that having no Navy ships in the Black Sea would make any attempt by the US to recover the drone “extremely difficult and time-consuming.”
As for what will happen next, Zhang Xuefeng, a Chinese military expert, said that the US and Russia may gradually release more information, including images or videos recorded by the US drone or Russian fighter jets, which will back up their own accounts of the incident.
Zhang told the Global Times that the US is using the incident to test Russia’s bottom line in response to its aggressive deployment of drones, while Russia drew the line through the interception.
Given the situation on the battlefield of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and US’ drones’ influence on Russia’s military actions, risks of similar incidents happening may increase. Meanwhile, the two sides may gradually explore new unspoken rules about flying and intercepting over the battlefield, Zhang predicted.
After the incident, the US may alter the way in which it collects related intelligence. However, the US drone crash will not stop the US from conducting close-in reconnaissance on Russia, as it needs to offer more strategic guidance for the Ukraine military in attacking key targets in order to gain the upper hand, said Song.
Although the US will continue to avoid direct involvement on the battlefield, it will beef up support from Western allies to Ukraine to prolong the conflict, said Song.