Russia and the United States race to recover the MQ9-Reaper drone that fell into the waters of the Black Sea after the propeller collided with one of the two SU-27 fighters that intercepted it (according to the US version) or that it was sunk by its operator on the ground after an erroneous maneuver, without there having been contact with the planes (according to the Russian version).
The incident, which took place on Tuesday morning off the coast of Crimea, is already the most serious incident in which the two countries are directly involved since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine and is a gravity that recalls those that took place during the years of the Cold War.
The case highlights the ease with which war can escalate in an area such as the Black Sea, where aircraft from both powers fly over the airspace. The United States says it will continue with information flights over an area it considers international waters.
Russia, on the contrary, believes that the area where the drone fell into the water belongs to Russia because it annexed Crimea in the first Ukrainian war in 2014. What is relevant is not only the discrepancy over the air space It is also that the site 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 from the attempted occupation of the Russian army.
In this context, the rhetoric of the representatives of the two countries has increased in tone in recent hours. Russia explained yesterday that it will look for the drone in the waters of the Black Sea because it considers the incident "a provocation". The Russian ambassador in Washington, Anatoli Antonov, pointed out yesterday that Russia "no longer plans to allow anyone to violate our waters", according to statements collected by the Russian state agency TASS.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said yesterday: “This dangerous episode is part of a pattern of aggressive, risky and very dangerous actions. I have just spoken to the Russian [Defense] Minister to explain all this to him (...) I have reiterated to him that the US will continue to fly and operate wherever international laws allow”. For his part, General Mark Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would also speak with his Russian counterpart and that "we have to see if the collision and the contact was intentional and it's something we have to investigate". The Pentagon has a good reason to continue now in the Black Sea, where it tries to recover the drone and in this way prevent the secrets it carried inside from falling into the hands of the enemy.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that "we will do everything we can 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 it can be assembled operation". In any case, the high official clarified, the operator on the ground of the drone "deleted 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", he pointed out. Kirby, for his part, reiterated that it is not an exceptional thing for Russian fighters to intercept US planes, but he qualified that "this incident is worthy of mention because of the 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 would open an investigation into the facts.
According to Ambassador Anatoli Antonov, who expanded on the statements made on Tuesday, Russia rejects the presence of US military in the Black Sea because they are too close to the Russian borders. "Can you imagine that a plane like that, an unmanned plane, suddenly appears 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 start from the basis that the United States will refrain from speculation in the media space and will put an end to flights next to the Russian borders ".
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the central issue of the whole incident is that US "military drones" in the Black Sea "ignore" the fact that Russia has established a restricted airspace over waters in which the incident took place since the beginning of the Ukrainian war. It is 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 events. The United States military informed its European allies of what had happened on Tuesday itself. The US and European allies have supplied weapons and armored vehicles to Ukraine. But so far they have not agreed to send warplanes there despite the demands of Ukraine and its closest ally, Poland.