Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine the US and the UK have stepped up reconnaissance and surveillance flights, though always operating in international airspace.
The key question is whether Tuesday’s encounter was an attempt by Russia to disrupt the US drone and its work, or whether it was a deliberate attempt to bring it down.
According to the US, there has been a “pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots” interacting with allied aircraft in the region.
So this could simply have been a mistake by a Russian pilot who got too close as they “buzzed” the drone. But if this was a deliberate attack on a US aircraft by a Russian warplane, then that would amount to a huge provocation and a substantial escalation.
The US today released a minute-long declassified video footage of an armed Russian Su-27 aircraft conducting what it called “an unsafe/unprofessional intercept” of a US Air Force MQ-9 in international airspace over the Black Sea on March 14.
VIDEO: Two #Russian Su-27s conducted an unsafe & unprofessional intercept w/a @usairforce intelligence, surveillance & reconnaissance unmanned MQ-9 operating w/i international airspace over the #BlackSea March 14. https://t.co/gMbKYNtIeQ @HQUSAFEAFAF @DeptofDefense @NATO pic.twitter.com/LB3BzqkBpY
— U.S. European Command (@US_EUCOM) March 16, 2023
The footage, posted on Twitter by the US European Command, shows the Russian jet approaching the rear of the US Air Force MQ-9 unmanned drone, which begins to release fuel as it passes over it. The video transmission abruptly stops just as the Russian jet passes by. The propeller of the drone can be seen intact, and the Russian jet begins a second approach towards it seconds later. It releases fuel over it again, while passing by even closer this time. One of the propellers could be seen damaged after the second maneuver.