Loss of U.S. drone clipped by Russian jet was a twist in a broader pattern

Two Su-27 jets with the Russian Air Force perform acrobatic maneuvers during the opening ceremony of the Tank Biathlon World Championship on Aug. 1, 2015 in Alabino, Russia. (Maxim Shipenkov/EPA/Shutterstock)
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The forcing down of a U.S. drone by Russian fighter jets over the Black Sea on Tuesday spiraled into a diplomatic incident and fueled concern about the potential for the war in Ukraine to escalate into direct conflict between the two superpowers.

The incident also shone light on a fact of geopolitics that often receives little attention: Close calls, some harrowing, between U.S. and Russian aircraft aren’t unusual.

The United States and NATO allies often intercept Russian jets flying close to Alaska or to NATO airspace above the Black or Baltic seas. Russia also has intercepted American aircraft in those regions, sometimes swooping close enough to cause turbulence.

This week’s incident “follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with U.S. and allied aircraft over international airspace,” U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe and Africa, said in a statement Tuesday.

Crashes caused during intercepts are extremely rare, however, even for drones. Analysts and officials warn that the war in Ukraine has only heightened the stakes.

The U.S. military released a video Thursday of what it says is a Russian fighter jet clipping a U.S. surveillance drone. The United States said the resulting damage forced it to bring the drone down into the Black Sea. Moscow has denied that either fighter hit the drone, and blamed the United States for flying the craft too close to territory in Crimea that Russia claims to have annexed.

Here’s what to know about the history of close encounters between Russia and the United States in the skies:

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.