Moscow warns US planes to leave its airspace after drone crash
By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Olena Harmash
WASHINGTON/KIEV (Reuters) – Moscow on Wednesday warned Washington to stay away from its airspace after a US drone intercepted by Russian jets crashed into the Black Sea, the first known direct confrontation between the superpowers since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Washington and Moscow traded blame for the incident, which took place in international airspace near territory Russia allegedly annexed from Ukraine. Moscow called it evidence that the United States was a direct participant in the war; Washington called it an act of Russian recklessness.
Russia said it would try to recover the drone’s wreckage from the sea. Washington said it may never be recovered and steps had been taken to ensure Russia could not glean information from the rubble.
“Americans keep saying they don’t take part in military operations. This is the latest confirmation that they are directly participating in these activities – in the war,” said Secretary of the Kremlin Security Council Nikolai Patrushev.
The US military said two Russian Su-27 fighter jets approached one of its MQ-9 Reaper drones on a reconnaissance mission over international waters. The fighters harassed the drone and sprayed fuel on it before one cut the drone’s propeller, causing it to crash into the sea.
“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence and is unsafe and unprofessional,” said James B. Hecker, commander, US Air Forces in Europe.
White House spokesman John Kirby said US officials had told Russia’s Ambassador Anatoly Antonov that Moscow needed to be more careful: “The message was: don’t do that again.”
According to Russia, there was no collision. The drone crashed after “sharp maneuvers” after flying “deliberately and provocatively” near Russian airspace. Moscow had scrambled its fighters to identify it.
“The unacceptable activities of the US military in close proximity to our borders are a cause for concern,” Ambassador Antonov said in a statement, accusing Washington of using drones to “gather intelligence that will subsequently be used by the Kiev regime to attack.” our forces and our territory”.
“Let’s ask a rhetorical question: If, for example, a Russian attack drone appeared near New York or San Francisco, how would the US Air Force and Navy respond?” he said, urging Washington to “deploy.” to stop near the Russian borders”.
The Kremlin said there had been no high-level contacts with Washington over the incident, calling the bilateral relationship “deplorable.”
For its part, Kiev said the incident showed Moscow was ready to “broaden the conflict zone” to include other countries. Russia upped the ante as it faces “conditions of strategic defeat” in Ukraine, tweeted Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.
The United States regularly conducts surveillance flights in international airspace in the region. It has backed Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in military aid but says its troops are not directly involved in the war, which Moscow portrays as a conflict against the combined might of the West.
ZELENSKIY COMMITS TO KEEPING BAKHMUT
Moscow has conducted a winter offensive involving hundreds of thousands of newly drafted reservists and convicts recruited from prison as mercenaries. She is attempting to capture the small town of Bakhmut to the east, claiming her first significant victory in more than half a year.
Kiev appeared likely to be preparing to pull out of the city last month, but has since doubled down on defense and said it is exhausting Russia’s assault force there to pave the way for its own counterattack.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a late night address that he had met his senior military officials and they unanimously advised strengthening Bakhmut.
Some Western and Ukrainian military experts have questioned whether Kyiv’s holding there makes sense given its heavy casualties there.
But Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Hanna Malyar said defending Bakhmut is important because “a large amount of enemy material is being destroyed… A large number of troops are being killed and as of today the enemy’s ability to advance is reduced.” “
The front lines in Ukraine have barely moved in four months, despite what has become Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War II, and has been described by both sides as a “meat grinder” with battlefields strewn with the dead.
Russia’s attacks have largely failed on most front lines, save for Bakhmut, where it has captured the east of the city and pushed north and south in an attempt to encircle it.
Intense fighting is also ongoing further north, where Russia is trying to retake territory it lost to a Ukrainian counter-offensive last year, and further south, where Moscow suffered heavy casualties in failed attacks on the Ukrainian-held bastion of Vuhledar in February.
Since retaking large areas in the second half of 2022, Ukraine has been on the defensive lately, planning a counteroffensive later this year once the muddy ground dries and Western armored vehicles and tanks arrive.
Russia invaded its neighbor a year ago, labeling Ukraine a security threat. It claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine’s territory. Kiev and the West see it as an unprovoked war to conquer land.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides are said to have been killed. Ukrainian cities have been destroyed and millions of people have fled their homes.
(Reported by Reuters offices, letter by Peter Graff, editing by Philippa Fletcher)