Russia’s apparent attack of a U.S. drone in international airspace on Tuesday quickly sparked concerns, spurring anxiety in Washington and drumming up fear across the nation of a wider escalation between the two countries.
The Biden administration and lawmakers have blasted Russia for what they called an unprofessional and unsafe maneuver in which two Russian jets damaged a U.S. MQ-9, forcing it to crash land in the Black Sea Tuesday.
Top American defense officials and experts quickly pointed out the unusual nature of the incident.
“This is extremely unusual, I’m not aware of an incident like this that’s occurred over the last year of conflict over there,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told The Hill.
Intercepts between U.S. and Russian aircraft are not uncommon, with several cases happening near Alaskan airspace so far this year. But the drone incident “is uncommon and unfortunate and unsafe,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters at the Pentagon.
While it’s unclear if this was a case of a rogue pilot or not, the U.S. European Command called the Russian actions “dangerous,” noting that they “could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation.”
U.S. aircraft have operated over the Black Sea since before Russia invaded Ukraine, using the highly advanced MQ-9 spy drone to keep eyes on the region.
But Tuesday’s incident marks the first publicly known case of a Russian warplane purposely damaging a U.S. aircraft amid the conflict.
Administration officials said the MQ-9 was flying over the Black Sea on a routine flight before it was flanked by two Russian jets.
The jets flew alongside the drone for 30 to 40 minutes before one of the jets flew in front of it and dumped fuel. One of the Kremlin jets then struck the drone’s propeller, forcing it to crash into the Black Sea.
While there have been a number of close-call incidents with Russian aircraft in the past, what makes this case unique is it involves an uncrewed U.S. aircraft, a detail that could keep tensions from blowing up, according to Becca Wasser, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security.
“The incident is deeply concerning given the context in which it takes place, but the fact that it was an uncrewed platform is likely to reduce the chances of it boiling over,” she told The Hill.
Wasser pointed to a similar incident in 2019 when Iran shot down an RQ-4 Global Hawk, which did not result in a direct U.S. military response.
Stephen Twitty, a retired lieutenant general and former deputy commander of U.S. European Command who is now a distinguished fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), said the incident can be resolved and it was important that Washington not escalate tensions any further.
“What we cannot do is jump with hotheadedness to take both of our countries into conflict,” Twitty said. “We cannot let the Russians provoke us into doing something irrational.
“This is about more than about the United States — this is about us and 29 other countries,” he continued, and “we need to conduct ourselves in a manner that does not take NATO or the United States to war.”
So far, Russian officials seem to have rebuffed efforts from U.S. officials to communicate about the incident.
At the Pentagon, Ryder said that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has not yet spoken to his Russian counterpart.
The U.S. military in March 2022 created a channel known as the de-confliction line to communicate directly with the Russian military to prevent “miscalculations” and “escalation” over the war in Ukraine.
But some calls have gone unanswered on Moscow’s side at critical times.
In November, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley attempted to speak with his Russian counterpart following a missile-caused explosion in NATO ally Poland but was unable to get through.
Neither Austin nor Milley have spoken with their Russian counterparts since October.
When asked about Tuesday’s drone incident at a press event, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said his “biggest worry” was a collision in the early morning hours and the potential roadblocks of trying to communicate about it to de-escalate.
Still, the State Department intends to reach out to Russian officials, according to National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday.
And Russian ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov was summoned to the State Department, where he met with officials to discuss the incident.
U.S. officials are now likely weighing the circumstances over Russia’s actions as they contemplate their response, with questions over where the drone was, how it interacted with the Russian jets and how it was brought down.
Other considerations include whether there was any warning or communication before the Russians reacted as this can help inform the U.S. reaction.
“I don’t know the details [of the Russian interception and drone downing], whether the drone was near something sensitive to them,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Daniel Fried, now a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council.
Fried said he views the incident as part of the ongoing sour relationship the U.S. has had with the Kremlin since during the Cold War, made anew when Russia invaded Ukraine.
But while on the“rougher end of the harassment scale,” he views the drone attack as saber rattling.
The drone attack prompted fury in Congress on Tuesday. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, blasted Russia as “reckless and inept.”
“There is no other way to describe Russia’s behavior in this collision with a U.S. drone over [international] waters,” Reed tweeted. “This pattern of Russian provocation must end.”
Reed, who praised the professional manner of the U.S. military response, told reporters on Tuesday they will have to investigate how the “disturbing” incident unfolded and determine the sequence of events and how deliberate of a provocation it was.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, tweeted the incident was “further proof that the threat Russia poses towards the U.S. & NATO has not receded.”
“Putin & his cronies are attempting to test our resolve – a test that we cannot afford to fail,” Rogers wrote.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the attack “brazen” and “dangerous.”
“I want to tell Mr. Putin, stop this behavior before you are the cause of an unintended escalation,” Schumer said. “We have seen this behavior from the Russian military before, and it will not deter the United States from conducting operations over the Black Sea.”
Laura Kelly contributed.