The White House on Thursday accused the Kremlin of “flat-out lying” as the Pentagon declassified video appearing to refute Moscow’s claims that the United States — not Russia — was the aggressor in a midair clash resulting in the downing of an American surveillance drone, an altercation that has raised alarm about the prospect of direct conflict between the nuclear powers and worsening the crisis in Ukraine.
The 42-second footage was widely disseminated after U.S. military officials said this week that two Russian Su-27 fighter jets buzzed and dumped fuel on an unarmed MQ-9 Reaper as it flew in international airspace over the Black Sea, with one of the jets striking the drone’s propeller. It sustained enough damage, officials said, that Air Force pilots remotely operating the Reaper were forced to crash-land the craft southwest of Crimea, the peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and has used more recently to launch attacks on Ukrainian cities and base a fleet of warships.
Several heated exchanges arising from the incident have inflamed what is already a dangerously tense relationship between Washington and Moscow. While U.S. officials have said the collision could have been an unintentional consequence of the Russian pilots’ “reckless” intercept of the drone, both sides have forcefully warned that the altercation had the potential to spiral out of control.
White House spokesman John Kirby said that the video “clearly” supports previous U.S. characterizations of what happened, and that “the Russians have been just flat-out lying” about their provocative actions over the Black Sea. The United States, he said, had been transparent by acknowledging it possessed imagery of the confrontation while working to determine it was appropriate for public release.
Kirby, speaking with reporters during a conference call, said that after watching the video, he remained unsure whether the strike was deliberate. The United States does not seek a conflict with Russia, he added, but “we do need to continue to support Ukraine.”
The United States and its NATO allies, in addition to arming Ukrainian forces throughout the war, have provided extensive intelligence to the government in Kyiv that has enabled its commanders to target Russian military personnel and facilities. The sprawling assistance effort expanded again Thursday when Poland announced it will send Ukraine a complement of Soviet-designed MiG-29s, the alliance’s first provision of fighter jets, with South Korea and the United States planning to backfill the Polish fleet with more advanced aircraft.
Central to the latest U.S.-Russia dispute is Moscow’s insistence the Reaper breached a self-declared exclusion zone around Crimea, and the United States’ counterclaim that its aircraft was operating in international airspace when the confrontation took place. U.S. officials say the incident occurred about 50 miles southwest of Crimea’s coast — well outside territorial waters and airspace, which extend 12 miles from the shore — and that, despite Russia’s assertion it owns the area beyond that internationally recognized boundary, U.S. commanders would be undeterred from operating there.
“They’re not legal,” Kirby said of the restrictions Russia declared. “The MQ-9 was flying in international airspace legally, and we’re going to continue to fly and operate in accordance with international law going forward.”
At the Pentagon, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman, presented an equally dim view of how Russia has characterized the incident. “I think our words and our actions speak for themselves,” he said. “Similarly, Russia’s inaccurate information … obfuscation, grasping at straws, changing narratives, also speaks for itself.”
The Kremlin made no immediate statements about the video, and the Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to messages seeking an official response.
A pro-Kremlin blogger on Thursday appeared to signal how Russia could alter its messaging in light of the video’s release. The footage shows the drone being doused with jet fuel and sustaining damage to its propeller, the blogger acknowledged on Telegram, attributing the “deformation of one of the blades” to the impact of jet fuel.
The silent footage, a small fraction of the estimated 40-minute encounter between the three aircraft, was distributed by the U.S. government after both countries indicated the day before that they may attempt to salvage the wreckage. Whether — and how — that would occur remained unclear.
U.S. officials have said what’s left of the drone is thought to be submerged in 4,000 to 5,000 feet of water, a depth that would challenge recovery even in ideal circumstances. Access to the Black Sea by warships not home-based there is banned during wartime by an international convention. There have been no U.S. naval vessels in the region since before the war began, though Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that the United States has “friends” nearby who could help.
Milley indicated that steps had been taken to wipe the drone’s electronics and render the wreckage useless should Russia attempt to raise the craft with hopes of exploiting any intelligence on board, though Kirby, the White House spokesman, noted Wednesday that such measures are “not foolproof.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that “it is the prerogative” of Russia’s military leaders to determine whether an attempt is made to surface the drone. “If they deem it necessary to do so in the Black Sea for the benefit of our interests and our security, they will do it,” he said.
Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said the United States has “indications” that Russia is likely to try to recover drone debris.
After U.S. military officials disclosed the encounter Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement saying that it scrambled the two fighters when the drone was detected but denied having hit the craft. Instead, Moscow said, the Reaper made “sharp maneuvers,” entered “uncontrolled flight” and then crashed into the sea.
The video appears to show two separate passes by the Russian jets, which in each instance sprayed a cloudy white stream against the sky’s bright blue backdrop and the rippling water below. U.S. officials have said the Su-27s dumped fuel on the drone before one struck it, rendering it too damaged to stay aloft.
In both passes, a jet is seen zooming in from behind the drone, which is clear because the propeller is on the back of the aircraft. The video transmission appears to be interrupted immediately after the first pass, and then resumes showing that the propeller is still spinning.
In the second pass, the U.S. military said, more fuel was dumped on the MQ-9 before a jet collides with it. In a statement accompanying the footage’s release, U.S. military officials said the video feed was lost for about 60 seconds after the second pass, and then reappeared showing the propeller slowing to a stop with a chunk missing from it.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking to reporters this week, described the incident as “dangerous and reckless and unprofessional,” calling it part of a pattern of “risky and unsafe actions” by Russian pilots in international airspace.
Appearing on Capitol Hill, the top U.S. military officer overseeing operations in the Middle East told lawmakers Thursday that since the start of March, Russian forces had carried out some aggressive flights over U.S. military positions in Syria. Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla said the maneuvers involved armed ground-attack aircraft and seemed designed “to try and be provocative.”
It was unclear Thursday how Poland’s decision to send four of its fighter jets to Ukraine might affect the war. Warsaw offered last spring to make MiGs available in a proposed arrangement that would have required American top cover by first accepting the jets at Ramstein Air Base in Germany with the United States then transferring them to Ukraine. The Biden administration said then that, while Poland had the right to provide its hardware to Kyiv, the United States would not participate, in part because officials feared that doing so could cause Moscow to lash out.
The deal was scuttled, but Ukrainian officials have continued to press their Western backers for air power. The administration has resisted, though, saying that Ukrainian pilots would face considerable threats from Russia’s arsenal of surface-to-air missiles. Poland’s move has put U.S. officials in the awkward position of watching as another NATO ally fulfills the request despite the Pentagon’s conclusion that doing so makes little sense in the near term.
Kirby, when asked about the situation, said Poland is “really punching above its weight when it comes to supporting Ukraine.” But the decision, he added, would not change the U.S. calculus surrounding a potential provision of F-16 fighter jets. President Biden said last month that Ukraine “doesn’t need F-16s now,” underscoring his military advisers’ expectation that when the war’s next phase begins to accelerate, it will look a lot like the grueling, bloody ground campaign that has left hundreds of thousands dead and wounded on both sides.
Although the senior-most military officials from Russia and the United States held calls this week in response to the Black Sea skirmish, there is no indication they reached any agreement on avoiding another clash.
Russian officials said in their initial response to Tuesday’s encounter that the drone was flying with its transponder turned off and “in violation of the boundaries of the temporary airspace use area” that Russia has declared to carry out a “special military operation,” a euphemism for its invasion of Ukraine. The Russians said this had been “conveyed to all airspace users and published in accordance to the international norms.”
There is no “international norm,” however, governing the unilateral declaration of exclusive airspace and maritime zones in times of conflict. Attempting to expand territorial airspace has long been highly controversial, and rejected when other nations have tried it. U.S. officials also have disputed Russian claims that the drone was flying without its transponder activated.
Alarm over the prospect of escalation appeared unchanged Thursday. Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, seeming to respond to comments made on a conservative cable news show by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), said remarks by some American lawmakers “go beyond common sense.” Graham had told the Fox News personality Sean Hannity that the United States should hold Russian leadership to account “and say, ‘If you ever get near another U.S. asset flying in international waters, your aircraft will be shot down.’”
Antonov responded by noting that “A deliberate attack on a Russian aircraft in neutral airspace is not just a crime according to international law, but also an open declaration of war against the largest nuclear power.”
Annabelle Chapman in Warsaw; Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia; and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.