Russian fighter pilots for state awards in US drone incident

MOSCOW – Russian fighter pilots involved in an incident involving a US drone that led to its crash will receive state awards, the Defense Ministry said on Friday. The move appears to signal Moscow’s intention to take a more aggressive stance on future US patrol flights.

The US military said it grounded the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in the Black Sea Tuesday after two Russian warplanes dumped fuel on the surveillance drone and then one of them struck its propeller while it was flying in international airspace. Moscow has denied that its warplanes hit the drone, claiming it crashed during a sharp maneuver. It said its plane was responding to a violation of a no-fly zone set up by Russia in the area near Crimea amid fighting in Ukraine.

On Friday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu praised the pilots for preventing the drone from flying into the area Moscow has closed to flights. The Ministry of Defense emphasized that the ban was “consistent with international norms”.

Moscow’s announcement comes a day after the US military released declassified 42-second color footage showing a Russian Su-27 fighter jet closing in on the US drone’s back and releasing fuel as it flies by, which appears to have been done aimed at blinding the drone’s optical instruments to drive them out of the area.

On a second approach, either the same jet or another Russian Su-27 that had been shadowing the MQ-9 struck the drone’s propeller, damaging a blade, according to the US military, which said it then set the plane down at sea . The video excerpt does not show the collision, but it does show the damage to the propeller.

The top defense and military leaders of the US and Russia spoke on Wednesday about the drone’s destruction in the first talks between them since October, underscoring the seriousness of the event.

While the White House called on Russia to act “recklessly”, it also tried to avoid escalating tensions. US officials stressed that they could not determine whether the Russian pilot intentionally hit the American drone and stressed that lines of communication with Moscow remain open.

Russian officials also stressed the need to maintain lines of communication but harshly condemned the US action as an arrogant disregard for Moscow’s no-fly zone.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, said on Friday that “Americans have just gotten way too rude and we shouldn’t be too polite to them.” He added more cautiously that “of course contacts between the military are necessary”.

Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov pointed to the award given to the pilots who buzzed the US drone as “a clear sign that Russia will keep shooting down the American drones.”

“This decision has strong support from Russian society, which wants the government to tighten its policies,” Markov wrote in a comment.

Moscow has repeatedly expressed concern over US intelligence flights near Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, amid strong international condemnation. The Kremlin has accused the US and its allies of effectively interfering in the conflict by supplying arms and sharing information with Kiev.

Some Russian officials charged that the US surveillance flights helped gather intelligence that enabled Ukraine to attack Russian targets.

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