Russia and the United States are fighting to recover the MQ9-Reaper drone that fell into the waters of the Black Sea after its propeller collided with one of the two SU-27 fighters that intercepted it (according to the US version) or was sunk by its operator on the ground after an erroneous maneuver and without contact with the aircraft (according to the Russian version).
The incident, which took place on Tuesday morning off the coast of Crimea, is already the most serious in which both countries have been directly involved since the start of the conflict in Ukraine and is of a gravity reminiscent of those that had place during the cold war years. Even more so if the news is confirmed that the NBC network advanced early this Thursday, which, citing three US intelligence sources, indicated that the sabotage or demolition order came from senior Kremlin officials.
What happened highlights the ease with which the war can escalate in an area like the Black Sea, where aircraft from both powers fly over the airspace. The United States maintains that it will continue with information flights over an area that it considers to be in international waters.
Russia, on the other hand, believes that the area where the drone fell into the water belongs to Russia for having annexed Crimea in the first Ukrainian war, in 2014. What is relevant is not only the dispute over airspace. It is also true that the scene of the incident is dangerously close to the war zone in which the Ukrainians (with military equipment supplied mostly by the United States) are defending themselves against the occupation attempts of the Russian army.
In this context, the rhetoric of the representatives of both countries has risen in tone in recent hours. Russia explained yesterday that it will look for the drone in the waters of the Black Sea after considering the incident "a provocation". The Russian ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said yesterday that Russia "is no longer planning to allow anyone to violate our waters," according to statements collected by the Russian state agency TASS.
In Washington, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said yesterday: “This dangerous episode is part of a pattern of aggressive, risky and highly dangerous actions. I just spoke to the Russian [Defense] Minister to explain all this (...) "I have reiterated that the US will continue to fly and operate wherever international law allows." For his part, General Mark Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he would also speak with his Russian counterpart and that "we have to see if the collision and contact were intentional and it is something that we have to investigate." The Pentagon has a compelling reason to continue in the Black Sea now, where it is trying to recover the drone and thus prevent the secrets it carried inside from falling into the hands of the enemy.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, stated that "we will do our best to minimize the loss of the drone" but added that "we are not sure that we will be able to recover it, we are still evaluating whether that operation can be mounted." In any case, the high official clarified, the operator on the ground of the drone "erased the sensitive data before sinking it."
Lloyd Austin insisted that "this dangerous incident is part of a pattern of aggressive, high-risk and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international space." Kirby, for his part, reiterated that it was not exceptional for Russian fighters to intercept US aircraft, but added that “this incident is noteworthy due to its recklessness and lack of professionalism. Finally, the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, did not want to comment on the intentions behind the accident and limited himself to pointing out that the United States will open an investigation into the facts.
The Russian version is substantially different. According to Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, who expanded on the statements made on Tuesday, Russia rejects the presence of the US military in the Black Sea because they are too close to the Russian borders. "Can you imagine such a plane, a drone, suddenly appearing near New York or San Francisco?" And he added in a note published on the Telegram channel of the Russian embassy in Washington that "we assume that the United States will refrain from speculation in the media space and will end flights along the Russian borders."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the central issue in the whole incident is that the US "military drones" in the Black Sea "ignore" the fact that Russia established an aerial zone of restrictions over the waters in which the incident took place since the beginning of the Ukrainian war. A decision, according to Lavrov, of which the US has always been aware.
Both Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden were informed of the incident on the same Tuesday. Neither wanted to make statements about the facts. The US military informed its European allies of what happened on the same Tuesday. The US and European allies have supplied weapons and armored cars to Ukraine. But so far they have not agreed to send warplanes despite the demands of Ukraine and its closest ally Poland.