Russia’s Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Antonov said on Tuesday that, contrary to the Pentagon’s account, Russian fighter jets did not shoot at or touch an American drone lost over international waters in Europe.
Antonov, and the Russian Defense Ministry in a separate statement, condemned the drone for allegedly being over territory that Russia had designated “for the purpose of the special military operation,” meaning the ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine. According to Moscow, the drone, an American MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ surveillance and attack unmanned vehicle, was flying near occupied Crimea, Ukraine. Ukraine has been under Russian control since leader Vladimir Putin colonized the peninsula in 2014.
The American Department of Defense’s European Command (EUCOM) announced in a statement on Tuesday that it had lost the Reaper drone because of “unsafe and unprofessional” actions by Russian Sukhoi 27 fighter jets. Both Russian and American authorities agree that the fighter jets did not shoot at the drone, but EUCOM accused the jets of striking the drone.
Two #Russian Su-27 aircraft conducted an unsafe & unprofessional intercept with a @usairforce
intelligence, surveillance, & reconnaissance unmanned MQ-9 aircraft operating w/in international airspace over the #BlackSea today. https://t.co/nLuJy2Awbe@DeptofDefense @NATO pic.twitter.com/f0njn4gzSj
— U.S. European Command (@US_EUCOM) March 14, 2023
“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,” U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in a statement. “In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”
“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,” EUCOM asserted, describing it as the latest in a “pattern of dangerous actions” in response to American forces in allegedly international airspace.
American officials described the drone as being on a “routine” mission in international waters.
Antonov, who Washington summoned in ire on Tuesday, issued a statement through the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Telegram account on Tuesday denying that the Russian fighter jets had acted in any dangerous way.
“The American UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] that was moving deliberately and provocatively towards the Russian territory with its transponders turned off violated the boundaries of the temporary airspace regime established for the special military operation,” Antonov said, “which was communicated to the [sic] all concerned users of international airspace in accordance with international norms.”
“At the same time, the Russian fighters scrambled to identify the intruder did not use on-board weapons and did not come into contact with the UAV,” Antonov continued. “The unacceptable actions of the United States military in the close proximity to our borders are cause for concern. We are well aware of the missions such reconnaissance and strike drones are used for.”
Antonov condemned the U.S. military for allegedly staging similar flights in international waters on a “daily” basis.
“What do they do thousands of miles away from the United States? The answer is obvious – they gather intelligence which is later used by the Kiev regime [the elected government of Ukraine] to attack our armed forces and territory,” Antonov’s statement read.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not deny the American drone crashed, but claimed it did so on its own, with no intervention by Moscow.
“As the Russian Defense Ministry specified, the drone went into an uncontrolled flight as a result of an abrupt maneuver, lost its altitude and crashed into the water,” the Russian news agency Tass reported, repeating Antonov’s assertion that “Russian fighter jets did not employ their onboard armaments, did not enter into contact with the drone and safely returned to their home airfield.”
While reporting on the Foreign Ministry’s remarks, Tass also quoted a Russian Air Force pilot justifying any intervention to prevent the American aircraft from flying into Russian airspace.
“When a drone flies in such a zone [Russia’s exclusive economic area], especially without any identification marks, we are required to identify it as an aerial target,” Major General Vladimir Popov told Tass, claiming that the Reaper drone is not easily identifiable and Russian forces must treat it as a threat even before they fully figure out what it is.
“We must not consider a priori whether this is a recon aircraft or something else and so we needed to be certain. If it seemed to us that it was heading for our borders and we wanted to prevent this, we buzzed it to let it know that it might violate our sovereign space,” Popov suggested.
Despite the confrontational language, Antonov described his conversation at the State Department following his summoning as “constructive.” The Russian ambassador met with Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried.
“We have exchanged our remarks on this issue because we have some differences in the way it happened today, but it seems to me it was a constructive conversation on the issue,” Antonov said following the meeting, according to the pro-Moscow outlet Sputnik. “I have heard her remarks. I hope she had understood what I mentioned.”