The Pentagon released on Thursday a video showing a Russian military jet intercept a U.S. drone downed over the Black Sea two days ago, in what was the first direct encounter between the world’s leading nuclear powers since the Ukraine war began.
The rare Pentagon move came a day after U.S. and Russian defence ministers and military chiefs held phone conversations over the incident, in which the MQ-9 Reaper drone crashed into the Black Sea while on a reconnaissance mission in international airspace.
In the declassified, roughly 40-second video, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet comes very close to the drone and dumps liquid near it, in what U.S. officials say was an apparent effort to damage the American aircraft as it flew over the Black Sea.
It also shows the loss of the video feed after a second pass by a Russian jet, which the Pentagon says resulted from its collision with the drone. The video ends with images of the drone’s damaged propeller, which the Pentagon says resulted from the collision, making the aircraft inoperable.
Russia has denied any collision and said the drone crashed after making “sharp manoeuvres”, having “provocatively” flown close to Russian air space near Crimea, which Moscow forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
“There is a pattern of behaviour recently where there is a little bit more aggressive actions being conducted by the Russians,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Wednesday, adding it was unclear whether the Russian pilots had intended to strike the drone.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told his U.S. counterpart that U.S. drone flights near Crimea’s coast “were provocative in nature” and could lead to “an escalation … in the Black Sea zone,” a ministry statement said.
Russia, the statement said, has “no interest” in escalation “but will in future react in due proportion” and the two countries should “act with a maximum of responsibility”, including by having military lines of communication in a crisis.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to offer any details about his conversation with Shoigu, including whether he criticized the Russian intercept.
However Austin added: “The United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows. And it is incumbent on Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner.”
The incident has been a reminder of the dangers of direct confrontation between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, which Western allies are supporting with intelligence and weapons.