"The causes of the incident are the non-observance by the United States of the restricted flight zone (...) due to the conduct of the special military operation (in Ukraine), as well as the reinforcement of intelligence activities against the interests of Russia,” Sergei Shoigu was quoted in a Russian Defense Ministry statement as saying. In the aftermath of the downing of an American drone in the Black Sea, for which Washington accuses a Russian plane of being responsible, the Russian Minister of Defense assured that Moscow would "react proportionally" to future American "provocations".
Russia will try to find the American drone, Moscow seeing in the deployment of these devices proof of direct involvement of Washington in the conflict in Ukraine. The Reaper MQ-9 fell into the sea after being hit, according to Washington, by a Russian fighter. Moscow admits the interception of the device, but denies any contact and being at the origin of the crash. A White House spokesman, John Kirby, previously told CNN that the United States had "taken steps" to recover their device.
Russia held the United States responsible for the incident and the tensions it sparked, calling on Washington to stop "hostile" drone flights.
Conversely, Ukrainian authorities accused Russian forces of deliberately bringing down the Reaper, in order to signal that Moscow was ready to escalate. This is "a signal from (Vladimir) Putin that he is ready to expand the conflict zone and involve other parties in it," Ukrainian Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said on Twitter.
Russia has meanwhile indicated that it will endeavor to find the device and bring it to the surface for analysis, while the United States plans to do the same. "I don't know if we'll be able to reach it or not, but we have to try. And we will necessarily deal with it, and I hope of course successfully, "said Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev on Russian television.
The official also said the incident proved that the United States is "a direct participant ... in the war."
Earlier, the Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, had used martial language and asserted that his country considered the presence of American drones in the area as a threat, urging the Americans to stop "their flights near Russian borders". "We consider any action involving the use of American armaments as openly hostile," he insisted, after being summoned by the US State Department.
On Tuesday, General James Hecker, commander of the American air forces in Europe, had assured him that "the drones of the United States and allies will continue to operate in international airspace". According to his story, the Reaper MQ-9 was conducting "routine operations in international airspace" when it was intercepted by Su-27 fighters and then "rammed" by one, resulting in the loss of the drone. The Russian army denied having caused the fall of the aircraft, but admitted that two of its fighters had intercepted it.
It is the first time since the start of the Russian assault on Ukraine on February 24, 2022 that a NATO country has admitted to having lost equipment operated by itself in this highly flammable region. The US military therefore denounced "the aggressive actions of Russian crews" and noted that such incidents could cause "unintentional escalation".
According to the Russian version of the facts, the American drone was detected "in the area of the Crimean Peninsula" Ukrainian territory annexed by Moscow in 2014.
The aircraft was advancing "in the direction" of Russia's borders "with transponders switched off" and had violated "the area of the provisional airspace utilization regime established to conduct the special military operation" in Ukraine, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. It was intercepted without hitting it by two Russian fighter jets, he added, saying that suddenly the drone "started an uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and hit the surface of the water".
The Reaper drone is a 20-meter wingspan remotely piloted aircraft, equipped with on-board sensors for surveillance, as well as weaponry. Flying at a cruising speed of 335 km/h, it boasts a range of over 24 hours. The skies of the Black Sea are the scene of very regular interactions between drones and aircraft from NATO countries and the Russian armed forces, especially since the start of the war in Ukraine.
“With the current crisis, we have an increase in the number of reconnaissance vectors towards Crimea, with Reaper, which we did not have before. And depending on the situation, it can irritate the Russians," said a French expert on condition of anonymity.
Ukraine's Western allies, who have been delivering arms to Kiev since the start of the conflict to help it defend itself, are not directly involved on Ukrainian territory, for fear of an escalation with Russian nuclear power.
France said on Wednesday that "actions of intimidation (were) not acceptable". "Freedom of navigation in international airspace must be respected and actions of intimidation are not acceptable," the foreign ministry said in response to a question from Agence France-Presse.
"We call on Russia to comply with international law on this subject, as on all of those from which it has deviated."
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday March 15 that the United States would continue to fly "where international law permits". "I just spoke on the phone with my Russian counterpart, Minister (Sergei) Shoigu. As I have said many times, it is important that the great powers are models of transparency and communication,” Lloyd Austin said at a press conference.
"And the United States will continue to fly...where international law permits." And it is Russia's responsibility to fly its military aircraft professionally and safely,” he warned. Lloyd Austin said his country takes "any escalation potential very seriously". "And that's why I think it's important to keep the communication channels open. I think it's really crucial that we can pick up the phone and talk. And I think that will help prevent miscalculation in the future,” he added.
US Chief of Staff General Mark Milley said Washington would examine the drone data to establish the exact facts, and that he himself intended to speak to his Russian counterpart. "We have a call scheduled, let's see if that happens," he said at the same press conference.
"Was it deliberate or not?" I do not know yet. We know the interception was deliberate. We know the aggressive behavior was deliberate, we also know it was unprofessional and it was dangerous." As for the physical contact between the devices, it "remains to be seen" whether it was deliberate or not, he added.