- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The U.S. and Russian militaries scrambled Wednesday to locate the wreckage of the American MQ-9 Reaper drone that crashed into the Black Sea after being hit by a tailing Russian fighter jet a day earlier, with the Pentagon’s top military officer suggesting that the U.S. may ask regional allies to help retrieve the unmanned, high-tech craft from an increasingly dangerous, disputed body of water.

In an incident that put fresh pressure on a deeply strained relationship, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the Pentagon knows the spot where the $32 million Reaper crashed into the sea after its collision with a Russian fighter jet. U.S. officials say the Russian Su-27 acted aggressively and irresponsibly in the run-up to the crash and even dumped fuel on the drone in an apparent bid to disable it. Moscow has rejected any blame and said its planes did not fire on or strike the craft.

The U.S. said the unmanned surveillance drone was flying over international waters, but Russian officials said the craft had turned off its transponders and was on a course to cross over what it considers to be Russian-controlled territory.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, appearing alongside Gen. Milley, told reporters at the Pentagon that he had spoken by phone with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu just before the public briefing, but the talk apparently did little to ease the level of anger on either side.

With the U.S. leading a broad coalition looking to punish and isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, bilateral relations are “at their lowest point, in a very lamentable state,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow, although he added, “Russia has never refused constructive dialogue, and is not refusing now.”

After the collision, U.S. crews were forced to bring the drone down in the Black Sea. Gen. Milley said the craft likely sank to the bottom of the sea at a depth of 4,000 feet or more, making any recovery operation challenging.

He said the drone probably broke apart on impact and there is “probably not a lot to recover, frankly.”

Gen. Milley said the U.S. will explore options to recover the drone if and when American personnel locate the wreckage.

“That’s U.S. property,” Gen. Milley said. “We do have allies and friends in the region. We don’t have any naval service vessels in the Black Sea at this time. We’ll work up options.”

Gen. Milley would not elaborate on what recovery operations might look like or which U.S. allies may be asked to help with the mission. He said American personnel took “mitigating measures” to ensure that any sensitive material on the drone was destroyed, so it’s likely the craft would provide little value to Russia other than as a prop to embarrass Washington.

Russian officials made clear that they hope to retrieve the craft. Finding and displaying the destroyed Reaper could represent a significant public relations win for the Kremlin, which is in desperate need of a morale boost after military setbacks in Ukraine.

Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Russia is working to find the drone.

“I don’t know if we can recover them or not, but we will certainly have to do that, and we will deal with it,” Mr. Patrushev said in televised remarks Wednesday. “I certainly hope for success.”

Meanwhile in Ukraine, the war of attrition ground on, with more fighting reported near Bakhmut, the embattled eastern city that has become a symbol for both sides in the war. Mr. Austin hosted another meeting of the “defense contact group” of allies that are giving military, diplomatic and economic aid to Ukraine in the fight against Russia’s invading forces.

The Russian Defense Ministry said it was gearing up for a recruitment campaign starting April 1 with the goal of adding 400,000 soldiers to the depleted Russian army. Russian press reports said orders have already gone out to regional offices on the local recruitment targets.

Deliberate escalation?

The collision Tuesday was believed to be the first direct clash involving U.S. and Russian military assets since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The U.S. drone, which was reportedly unarmed, was conducting a routine surveillance mission over the Black Sea.

Russia has long complained about such U.S. flights in the Black Sea region, particularly off the coast of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014. U.S. officials said Russia has engaged in a pattern of harassment of American aircraft in the area in recent months.

Never before had the Russian military reacted so aggressively. U.S. officials said the Su-27 buzzed the Reaper for at least 30 minutes before dumping fuel on it. Then the Su-27 struck the propeller of the Reaper.

U.S. officials said it was not clear whether the collision itself was intentional.

“We know the intercept was intentional. We know the aggressive behavior was intentional,” Gen. Milley said. “The actual contact of the fixed-wing Russian fighter with our [drone], the physical contact of those two, not sure yet. That remains to be seen.”

Gen. Milley and Mr. Austin said the Pentagon has detailed video evidence of the encounter that disproves Russia’s contention that the Reaper got into an “uncontrolled flight,” lost altitude and crashed into the sea.

“We remain confident in the facts we have conveyed thus far,” Mr. Austin said. “That will not change in terms of what happened and how it happened.”

While denying involvement in bringing down the drone, Russian officials condemned the flight and said it’s clear that the U.S. is gathering information to help Ukraine.

“What do they do thousands of miles away from the United States?” Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov said in a statement Wednesday. “The answer is obvious — they gather intelligence which is later used by the Kyiv regime to attack our armed forces and territory.”

“It is the United States that is leading the situation to a deliberate escalation fraught with a direct armed conflict,” he said.

Both sides appeared at pains to keep the incident from fueling fears that the U.S.-Russian tensions over Ukraine could escalate into direct conflict. In addition to Mr. Austin’s conversation with Mr. Shoigu, Gen. Milley said he had spoken with top Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov in an effort to defuse the situation.

“We take any potential for escalation very seriously, and that’s why I believe it’s important to keep the lines of communication open,” Mr. Austin said. “I think it’s really key we’re able to pick up the phone and engage each other.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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