The White House has condemned Russia for “unsafe” and “reckless” jet manoeuvres that the United States says led to the downing of a US drone over the Black Sea.
The US military’s European Command said in a statement that a Russian Su-27 fighter jet struck the propeller of the MQ-9 Reaper drone on Tuesday, requiring it to be brought down in international waters and resulting in the loss of the aircraft.
The Black Sea borders both Russia and Ukraine, which have been at war since Russia invaded its neighbour on February 24 last year.
The US military said prior to the collision at 7:03am (06:03 GMT), two Su-27s “dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9” in what it described as a “reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner”.
“Aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation,” the statement said.
Russia’s Ministry of Defence has denied that the Russian fighter jet and the drone made contact, saying later on Tuesday that the drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), went into uncontrolled flight and crashed into the water during “sharp manoeuvring”.
It said the US drone was flying over the Black Sea near Crimea and intruded in an area that was declared off limits by Russia as part of its offensive in Ukraine, causing the military to scramble fighters to intercept it.
“The Russian fighters did not use their onboard weapons, did not come into contact with the UAV and returned safely to their home airfield,” the ministry said.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the incident.
“It is not uncommon … for there to be intercepts by Russian aircraft of US aircraft over the Black Sea,” Kirby told reporters.
But this case “is noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional it was, indeed [how] reckless that it was”, said Kirby, adding, “We don’t need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace.”
Meanwhile, US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said the US government would summon Russia’s ambassador over the incident, which he said marked a clear violation of international law.
“We are engaging directly with the Russians, again at senior levels, to convey our strong objections to this unsafe, unprofessional intercept, which caused the downing of the unmanned US aircraft,” Price told reporters.
He added that the US ambassador to Moscow has conveyed a strong message to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Top NATO General Christopher Cavoli had also briefed NATO allies on the incident, an official told the Reuters news agency.
Moscow has repeatedly expressed concern about US intelligence flights close to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Tuesday’s incident occurred as Russian troops pushed forward in waves along the front line in eastern Ukraine, where fierce fighting is raging in the city of Bakhmut.
The US military said the crash of the drone “follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with US and allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea”.
The US uses MQ-9 Reapers, which have a wingspan of 20m (66 feet) and are approximately 11m (36 feet) long, for both surveillance and air strikes.
It has operated the drones in a variety of locations, including the Middle East and Africa. Other countries, including Britain and France, also fly the drones.
Several US MQ-9s have been lost in recent years, including one shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Yemen in 2019 and another reportedly lost in Libya in 2022. The units reportedly each cost about $32m.