Russian fighter pilots involved in an incident with a U.S. drone that resulted in its crash will be given State awards, the Defence Ministry announced on March 17. The move appears to signal Moscow's intention to adopt a more aggressive stance toward future U.S. surveillance flights.
The U.S. military said it ditched the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in the Black Sea on March 14 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. Moscow has denied that its warplanes hit the drone, alleging that it crashed while making a sharp manoeuvre. It said that its warplanes reacted to a violation of a no-flight zone Russia has established in the area near Crimea amid the fighting in Ukraine.
On March 17, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu lauded the pilots for preventing the drone from flying into the area that Moscow has banned for flights. The Defence Ministry said the ban was “in line with international norms.”
Moscow's announcement comes a day after the U.S. 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 U.S. and Russian defence and military leaders spoke on March 15 about the destruction of the drone, underscoring the event’s seriousness. The calls between U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of Russian General Staff, were the first since October.
While calling out Russia for “reckless” action, the White House also tried to avoid exacerbating tensions. U.S. officials emphasised 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 emphasised the need to maintain lines of communication, but they harshly denounced the U.S. action as arrogant disregard of Moscow's no-flight zone.
“This is a clear sign that Russia will keep downing the American drones,” pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov wrote in a commentary on the award announcement. “This decision will receive a strong support from the Russian society that wants the government to toughen its policy.”
Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about U.S. intelligence flights close to Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 amid strong international condemnation. The Kremlin has charged the U.S. and its allies of effectively becoming engaged in the conflict by providing weapons and sharing intelligence with Kyiv.
Some Russian officials charged that the U.S. surveillance flights helped gather intelligence that allowed Ukraine to strike Russian targets.