The Pentagon said on Tuesday that a Russian warplane struck an unarmed American MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drone over the Black Sea just after dawn on Tuesday, hitting its propeller and causing its American operators to bring it down in international waters. Russia said that the drone was flying toward its territory and denied that it had used force.
It is the first known physical contact between the Russian and American militaries since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
Here is what we know:
Where did it happen?
The Pentagon said that Russian warplanes intercepted the drone over international waters, in airspace not within a single nation’s territory. Ukrainian officials also said that the drone was flying in international air space and had crashed in waters southeast of Snake Island, a sliver of land off the coast of the Ukrainian port city of Odesa.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said that the drone had been flying near the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula and was headed toward the Russian border with its identifying transponder off. Moscow said this was a violation of the instructions Russia has issued for the airspace over its military operations in Ukraine.
What are the U.S. and Russia saying?
A senior U.S. military official said the MQ-9 drone had taken off from its base in Romania early on Tuesday for a regularly scheduled reconnaissance mission. The drone’s cameras can observe Crimea from international airspace, the official said, and such missions, which have taken place since before the war in Ukraine began, can last up to 10 hours.
The State of the War
- On the Front Lines: From Kupiansk to Bakhmut, Russian forces are attacking along a 160-mile arc in eastern Ukraine in an intensifying struggle for tactical advantage before possible spring offensives.
- Plotting a Political Advance: Recent statements by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, suggest he wants to move past his standing as a military leader and play a larger role in Russian society.
- War Crime Cases: The International Criminal Court intends to open two war crimes cases tied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The cases accuse Russia of abducting Ukrainian children and of deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure.
- Ukrainian Refugees in the U.S.: The Biden administration said that thousands of Ukrainians who fled to the United States in the first months of the war would be eligible to extend their stay.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said on Wednesday that the incident would not deter such flights, adding that “the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.”
Moscow’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said that the drone was conducting “unacceptable” activity in the vicinity of Russia’s borders. Mr. Antonov said that U.S. drones in the area collect data that is passed to Ukraine to enable it to conduct strikes on Russian territory, apparently referring to attacks in Crimea.
Where is the drone now?
The drone went down in waters near Snake Island, according to Ukrainian officials. The island was briefly occupied by Russian forces at the start of the war before Ukraine drove them out. The Pentagon declined to comment on Tuesday about whether the U.S. or its allies would seek to recover the wreckage.
The Black Sea has a maximum depth of over a mile, but the waters near the coast of Crimea are for the most part much shallower. MQ-9 drones, a workhorse of the U.S. fleet, have been lost over Afghanistan, Syria and other countries and their wreckage likely recovered by other armed groups. It was not clear what, if any, military intelligence the downed drone might yield to Russian forces were they to retrieve it.
What happens next?
The incident immediately raised friction between the Kremlin and Washington. The United States, with other allies, has supplied Ukraine with billions of dollars in military aid to sustain its defense against Russia, but it has also tried to manage tensions with Moscow and sought to avoid a direct military clash.
The Pentagon said it was working to declassify video of the drone incident. There were signs, however, that Washington was eager to play down the implications of the confrontation.
Moscow, too, could see value in not allowing the incident to further stoke tensions. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said on Wednesday that relations between Moscow and Washington were “at their lowest point, in a very bad state.” But he said he had nothing to add about the drone incident.
Valerie Hopkins and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.