Why Is Russia 'Downing' US Drone Over Black Sea So Worrying?

The Pentagon has released a 42-second video of what it said was the Russian Su-27 dumping fuel on the unmanned aircraft.

Tensions over the war in Ukraine escalated after the US was forced to ditch a surveillance drone after a collision with a Russian fighter jet over the Black Sea.

The US military says it essentially crashed its MQ-9 Reaper drone because of the damage caused, claiming a warplane dumped fuel on the unmanned aircraft before striking its propeller.

Moscow tells a different story, blaming “sharp maneuvering” of the spy drone for the crash and saying that its jets did not come into contact with it.

In any case, it is the first such incident since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over a year ago, stoking fears about whether the two superpowers will be drawn into a direct confrontation.

Two days later, the Pentagon released footage of the drone being menaced – saying the 42-second video showed the Russian Su-27 approaching the back of drone and releasing fuel as it passes.

Dumping the fuel appeared to be aimed at blinding the drone’s optical instruments to drive it from the are

An MQ-9 Reaper type drone.
An MQ-9 Reaper type drone.
Fabrizio Villa via Getty Images

What happened?

The US military has said a Russian Su-27 fighter jet intercepted and struck the propeller of a US military MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drone on Tuesday. It caused the drone to crash into the Black Sea, which lies between Europe and Asia and is bordered by countries including Russia and Ukraine.

The US said the drone was carrying out routine operations in international airspace. America is not sailing warships in the Black Sea, but it has routinely been flying surveillance aircraft in and around the area.

Several times before the collision, two Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the MQ-9, possibly trying to blind or damage the drone, the US military said, adding that they flew in front of the American aircraft in unsafe moves.

It follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with US and allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea, according to the US.

What has the US said?

State Department spokesperson Ned Price called it a “brazen violation of international law”.

US air force general James Hecker, who oversees the US air force in the region, said the “unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash”.

White House national security souncil spokesperson John Kirby said: “We have been flying over that airspace consistently now for a year ... and we’re going to continue to do that.

“We don’t need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace. There’s no requirement to do that nor do we do it.”

The US has summoned Russia’s ambassador to Washington over the incident, while US ambassador to Moscow has conveyed a strong message to Russia’s foreign affairs ministry.

What has Russia said?

There was no immediate reaction from Moscow, which has repeatedly voiced concern about US intelligence flights close to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Russia’s defence ministry later said the US drone went into the water as a result of “sharp maneuvering” by 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.

Why does it matter?

Fears of direct confrontation between the US and Russia, the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, has loomed large over the war, with many fearing a World War Three-like scenario.

Between them, the US and Russia hold nearly 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads – enough to destroy the planet many times over.

The incident adds to these ongoing tensions as it appeared to mark the first time since the height of the Cold War that a US aircraft was brought down after being hit by a Russian warplane.

Nato member countries in Europe.
Nato member countries in Europe.
PA Graphics via PA Graphics/Press Association Images

The fears of escalation have been ever-present since the war began, chiefly because the US effectively leads the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) military alliance of 30 member nations.

Members agree to mutual defence – military action – in response to an enemy attack. The principle goes: “An attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies.” This is Article 5 of the Nato constitution.

Because Ukraine is not a member of Nato, Western support for Volodymyr Zelenskyy has fallen short of putting their troops on the ground. While the latest incident is unlikely to propel the US further into the war than they already, Joe Biden’s administration could act to make clear Russian aggression will not stand.


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