Russian crews are searching the Black Sea for remains of the American MQ-9 Reaper that crashed there earlier this week, Pentagon officials said, while the US military on Thursday released raw video footage that appears to show a Russian fighter jet running out of fuel the Black Sea drains drone and cuts off her propeller just before she went under.
Even as US military officials tried to focus on Ukraine and its fight against Russian invaders, key questions about the drone crash remained unanswered, including whether Moscow could potentially get its hands on sensitive data if it found the wreck off America or America find allies do. Russian personnel were reportedly near where the MQ-9 crashed Thursday, though Pentagon leaders stressed that the drone likely broke apart on impact and the remains are now at least 4,000 feet underwater, which is what making the salvage effort extraordinarily difficult.
Russian officials again blamed the US for the incident, accusing the US of increasingly risking a direct confrontation by flying surveillance drones over the Black Sea near the coast of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014 and claims as its own territory.
The back-and-forth between Washington and Moscow almost overshadowed other key developments on Thursday, including Poland’s announcement that it would send a dozen MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, the first formal offer from a NATO member amid multiple solicitations from Kiev.
The Polish bid will put fresh pressure on the Biden administration to send its own American F-16 planes to Ukraine and deliver what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called a potential turning point in the country’s war effort.
Ukraine’s Interfax news service reported Thursday that General Mykola Oleshuk, the country’s supreme air force commander, is calling on NATO countries to form an “aircraft coalition” that would provide Ukraine with modern aircraft.
“Victory on the ground is indeed forged in the sky, and such an ‘aircraft coalition’ could function on the principle of the ‘tank coalition’,” which sends western tanks to the Ukrainian front, a spokesman for General Oleshuk told the intelligence service. Warplanes supplied by NATO would “enable us to seize the airspace over Ukraine as quickly as possible and help our ground forces,” the spokesman added.
Separately, a United Nations-backed inquiry released Thursday found that Russian attacks on civilians in Ukraine amounted to war crimes, and possibly even crimes against humanity. The panel cited systematic torture and other horrific abuses by Russian troops.
Against this backdrop, Pentagon officials sought to focus squarely on the war itself and provide the equipment Ukraine needs to win. They dismissed the Kremlin’s claim that the war was rapidly turning into a US-Russia conflict.
“The United States’ focus in the region … is solely on providing Ukraine with the support it needs to defend itself,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters. “The United States does not seek conflict with Russia. We are not aiming for an escalation with Russia.”
It’s unclear exactly what the US military is doing to locate and recover the wreckage of the MQ-9. General Ryder appeared to downplay the impact of the Russians finding the drone, saying the military had taken steps to “secure” any sensitive data that was on board.
“We have indications that … Russia is likely making efforts to recover MQ-9 debris,” he said. “We estimate that it is very unlikely that they will be able to salvage anything useful given a number of factors, one…that we have taken steps to protect information onboard this aircraft and the other, the fact that it is at extremely deep.” water has crashed.”
“We have skills and resources in place to protect information that we have taken,” he added.
After the collision between the MQ-9 and a Russian Su-27 fighter jet on Tuesday, the Kremlin denied any blame. Russian officials said their planes did not fire on or hit the American vehicle. They said the US drone went into “uncontrolled flight” and crashed into the sea.
The Pentagon’s European command released a dramatic 42-second video Thursday that appears to at least partially confirm the US version of events. US officials claimed the footage showed a Russian plane flying dangerously close to the MQ-9. On its first flyby, the Russian plane appears to dump fuel into the US plane’s flight path to disable the drone.
The drone was undamaged after the first encounter. A short time later, the Russian jet flew by a second time, dumping more fuel, but this time the plane seemed on course to crash into the MQ-9’s propeller. There was an apparent collision that temporarily shut down the drone’s video feed.
The video will then be restored briefly.
The exact moment of impact is not fully visible on the video, which may give the Kremlin an opportunity to dispute the American version of events. But the footage clearly shows the MQ-9 with a damaged propeller.
Details aside, Russia took aim at America’s reasons for flying drones near what it believes is Russian territory, saying Washington is driving the escalation.
The “United States is constantly trying to create some sort of provocation to fuel confrontational thinking. It’s not good,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, according to comments published on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Telegram channel.
“As far as global security is concerned, any incident that triggers a clash between two of the major nuclear powers poses very serious risks. You’re certainly aware of that,” he said.
Russian officials have accused the US of using its surveillance drones to gather intelligence and funnel it into Ukraine. This information is then used to attack Russian troops and ships patrolling the Black Sea, Moscow says.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on Thursday that the military is still weighing its options.
When asked if Russia would try to lift the drone off the seabed to examine it, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied:
“That’s the prerogative of the military,” he said. “If they deem it necessary [retrieve the drone] in the Black Sea for our interests and for our safety, they will take care of it.”
Russian and Ukrainian troops are engaged in fierce fighting in several theaters in eastern Ukraine, including the town of Bakhmut, which continues to be heavily attacked by Russian forces. Ukrainian forces have so far maintained control of the city, although there are growing questions about whether Kiev is using resources in the battle for Bakhmut that could otherwise be used in its upcoming spring offensive.
Ukraine has asked the West for warplanes to support this offensive. While most NATO countries are reluctant to provide jets for fear of an escalation with Russia, Polish President Andrzej Duda said Thursday his country will send four MiGs to Ukraine immediately. Another batch of jets needs maintenance and repairs but will be delivered to Kiev soon, he said.
“They are in the last years of their functioning, but they are in good working order,” said the Polish President.
Poland’s decision will put more pressure on President Biden to underwrite F-16 deliveries to Ukraine. Last month, Mr Biden said he was ruling out the prospect of sending F-16s “for now”, despite mounting pressure to do so.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby told CNN on Thursday that Poland’s decision hasn’t changed Mr Biden’s mind, even as the president faces pressure from Kiev supporters of both parties on Capitol Hill, more to do.
“It doesn’t change anything in our calculus in relation to [sending Ukraine] F-16,” Mr. Kirby told the cable network. “These are sovereign decisions that every country must make and we respect those sovereign decisions.”
• This article is based in part on Wire Service reports.
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