Nearly two days after Russian fighter planes allegedly hit the US drone over the Black Sea, the Russian defence ministry awarded its pilots involved in the incident. According to the Ministry, the awards were conferred as they hindered the entry of US drones into the no-fly zone.
The move appears to signal Moscow’s intention to adopt a more aggressive stance toward future US surveillance flights. The US 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.
Russia denies US allegations
Moscow has denied that its warplanes hit the drone, alleging that it crashed while making a sharp manoeuvre. It said that its aircraft 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 emphasised that the ban was “in line with international norms.”
US released footage of the incident
Moscow’s announcement comes a day after the US military released a declassified 42-second colour footage showing a Russian Su-27 fighter jet approaching the back of the U.S. drone and releasing fuel as it passes in what 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 aircraft in the sea. The video excerpt does not show the collision, although it does show the damage to the propeller.
The top US and Russian defence and military leaders spoke Wednesday about the destruction of the drone in the first calls between them since October, underscoring the event’s seriousness.
US tried to avoid exacerbating tensions
While calling out Russia for “reckless” action, the White House also tried to avoid exacerbating tensions. US officials emphasized that they have not been able to determine whether the Russian pilot intentionally struck the American drone and stressed that lines of communication with Moscow remain open.
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.
(With inputs from AP)