No More U.S. Flights Near Russia, Diplomat Demands After Drone Strike

  • The Russian envoy in Washington, D.C. has blamed the U.S. for the incident in which a MQ-9 Reaper drone crashed into the Black Sea after being harassed and rammed by Russian Su-27 fighter jets.
  • U.S. Air Force General James B. Hecker said the Russian jets performed an unprofessional, unsafe, and unacceptable action.
  • The Russian ambassador denied the U.S. report of the incident and claimed the drone was collecting intelligence to help Ukrainian units target Russian forces.

Russia's envoy in Washington D.C. has blamed the U.S. for Tuesday's incident in which the Air Force said one of its MQ-9 Reaper drones crashed into the Black Sea after being rammed by Russian Su-27 fighter jets and called on the U.S. to stop flying missions near Russia's borders.

The State Department summoned Ambassador Anatoly Antonov to explain the incident on Tuesday. Antonov later issued a communique condemning what he called "unacceptable actions of the United States military in the close proximity to our borders," according to Russia's state-run TASS news agency.

U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in a statement that the drone was flying over international waters and was lost after "the Su-27s dumped fuel on, and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner."

One of the Russian aircraft then struck the Reaper's propeller, forcing it down into the sea, he said. "This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional," Hecker added.

US MQ-9 Reaper in Nevada flight
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies by during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base on November 17, 2015 in Indian Springs, Nevada. Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Antonov denied the U.S. report of the incident, instead claiming there was no physical contact or other undue harassment of the drone by Russian fighters. The drone, he told Newsweek, was collecting intelligence to help Ukrainian units target Russian forces.

"We are well aware of the missions such reconnaissance and strike drones are used for," the ambassador said in a communique quoted by TASS. "What do they do thousands of miles away from the United States? The answer is obvious; they gather intelligence which is later used by the Kyiv regime to attack our armed forces and territory."

"Let us ask a rhetorical question: if, for example, a Russian strike drone appeared near New York or San Francisco, how would the U.S. Air Force and Navy react? I am quite confident that the U.S. military would act in an uncompromising way and would not allow its airspace or territorial waters to be breached," he added.

"We proceed from the fact that the United States will refrain from further speculations in the media landscape and stop making sorties near the Russian borders...We perceive any actions involving the use of American weapons and military equipment as openly hostile."

Leonid Slutsky, the leader of the right-wing populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the chairman of the State Duma's international affairs committee, told TASS the incident is "proof that the United States is involved in the Ukrainian conflict."

"No doubt, this was a provocation that Russia cannot view otherwise than as an enemy action," the lawmaker said.

The U.S. routinely conducts reconnaissance flights over the Black Sea and around Russian borders, as does Moscow on the edges of NATO airspace.

Mark Voyger, a former special adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs to then-commander of U.S. Army Europe General Ben Hodges, told Newsweek that Moscow is sending the message that "the Black Sea is effectively, from the Russian point of view, almost an internal sea." Any non-Black Sea states, he said, are perceived as "intruders" by the Kremlin.

"What happens in the Black Sea doesn't stay in the Black Sea," Voyger added, framing the drone incident as part of a larger Russian effort to exert pressure on Ukrainian partners amid Moscow's elusive battlefield success.

"I see it not as an isolated incident, but as part of this larger, ongoing strategy of effectively reclaiming quasi-sovereignty over the Black Sea," Voyger —now a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Analysis and professor at the American University of Kyiv—added. "The fact that they're doing this over international waters shows me that they're becoming more aggressive."

"I would say they're quite concerned about losing Crimea if they're ready to launch such a provocation," Voyger said of the Russian downing of the U.S. drone.

The area is likely to become more tense in the coming months, he added. "I don't think the Russians will back down. My expectation is that as the time approaches for the Ukrainians to launch their counter offensive, especially if it's targeting Crimea, probably more of this would happen, or at least the Russians would be more trigger happy."

"I wouldn't predict that they will start shooting at Western planes, but unmanned vehicles are probably fair game for them in the future."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry by email to request comment.