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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US won’t stop surveillance flights despite downing of its drone

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, left, alongside Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies at a Senate Armed Services Committee budgetary hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 7, 2022.

By Daniel Victor, Marc Santora, Eric Schmitt and Valerie Hopkins

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III said Wednesday that the United States would continue to conduct surveillance flights after a U.S. reconnaissance drone was struck by a Russian warplane and downed over the Black Sea.

“Make no mistake: The United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows,” Austin said in remarks at the beginning of a virtual meeting of some 50 nations supporting Ukraine’s efforts in the war against Russia.

“This hazardous episode is a part of a pattern of aggressive and risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace,” Austin said. “It is incumbent upon Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner.”

The incident, the first known physical contact between the Russian and U.S. militaries since the war in Ukraine began, has raised tensions between the superpowers, although there were signs Wednesday that both nations were trying to contain the fallout.

The United States and Ukraine have said that the unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drone was flying in international air space on a routine surveillance and reconnaissance mission. American and Ukrainian officials have said they share intelligence gathered by such missions, particularly related to the threat posed by Russian warships and submarines in the Black Sea.

The Pentagon accused Moscow of recklessness, saying Russian planes had dumped fuel on the U.S. drone Tuesday before one then clipped the drone’s propeller and caused its U.S. operators to bring it down in the Black Sea, southwest of the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula. Ukrainian officials said that the drone crashed in waters to the southeast of Snake Island, around 30 miles off the Ukrainian coast.

Russia denied that its plane had hit the drone and demanded an end to U.S. military flights near its territory.

“I want to emphasize that the Russian fighters did not use airborne weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle and safely returned to their base airfield,” Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry’s chief spokesperson, said in a statement Wednesday.

He said that the drone had been flying “in the direction” of Russia’s border and that the fighter jets were dispatched “in order to identify the intruder.”

Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, said Wednesday that Russia was trying to retrieve the wreckage. John Kirby, a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council, said that because of the depths of the waters where the drone came down, “I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to recover it.”

“We’re still assessing whether there can be any kind of recovery effort mounted. There may not be,” Kirby said on CNN.

The Pentagon said the incident was an example of Russian incompetence. U.S. officials said they did not believe that the Russians had intended to clip the propeller of the drone with their plane, a risky move that endangered the Russian plane as well.

“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,” the U.S. military’s European Command said in a statement.

Other American officials said they had not seen indications that what happened heralded a broader strategy of harassing U.S. or NATO reconnaissance planes, with one official saying it was not any sort of “concerted chess move” by Russia.

The reaction on state media in Russia was largely muted, but some politicians sought to portray the episode as evidence that the United States was in direct confrontation with Moscow. Leonid Slutsky, head of the Russian Parliament’s Committee on International Affairs, said in an interview with Tass, the Russian state news agency, that it “once again proves the involvement of the United States in the Ukrainian conflict.”

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