Moscow has said it intends to recover the wreckage of a US drone brought down on Tuesday following an interception by Russian fighter jets, but US officials said the debris could be in such deep water that recovery is impossible, and would have no real intelligence value.
“I don’t know if we can recover [it] or not, but we will certainly have to do that, and we will deal with it,” said Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s security council, on Wednesday. “I certainly hope for success.”
Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, said Russia had the technological capability to recover the debris of the MQ-9 Reaper drone from the seabed. The impact site is believed to be in international waters off the west coast of occupied Crimea, where Russia has established naval bases and airfields.
Turkey has barred access for warships through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began over a year ago, and the US navy does not have any warships currently in the Black Sea. John Kirby, the spokesman for the national security council, said on Wednesday the wreck might not be salvageable.
“It has not been recovered. And I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to recover it,” Kirby told CNN. “Where it fell into the Black Sea [is] very, very deep water. So we’re still assessing whether there can be any kind of recovery effort. There may not be.”
Gen Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said that where the drone had come down, the sea was up to 5,000 feet (1524 metres) deep, “so any recovery operation is very difficult at that depth, by anyone”.
Although the US had no ships in the Black Sea, Milley noted that it had “a lot of allies and friends in the area”.
“We will work through recovery operations. That’s US property. But it probably broke up. There’s probably not a lot to recover, frankly,” he said. “As far as the loss of any sensitive intelligence … we did take mitigating measures. So we are quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value.”
The US claimed the drone was damaged on Tuesday morning by a Russian Su-27 fighter jet hitting its propeller after a pair of Su-27s had spent at least half an hour trying to disrupt the Reaper, by dumping fuel on it and flying in front of it. Moscow denies its aircraft came into contact with the drone and insists it fell from the sky after making a “sharp manoeuvre”.
The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, spoke about the incident to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, on Wednesday.
“It’s important that great powers be models of transparency and communication,” Austin said, adding that he had complained about “a pattern of risky and aggressive” behavior by Russian military pilots. Austin said that video and photographs of the incident were being assessed for security reasons before publication, but said they confirmed the US account of the incident.
The defence secretary said the incident would not deter the US from flying in the area. “We will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows,” he said, calling on Russia to operate its aircraft in a “safe and professional manner”.
The Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu told Austin that Washington’s “increased” intelligence gathering against Russia had led to the drone incident. The ministry in Moscow also warned that it would react “proportionately” to any future US “provocations”.
It is the first recorded collision of a US and Russia or Soviet aircraft since the second world war. In 1987, there was an incident involving a Soviet Su-27 and a Norwegian P-3 Orion maritime surveillance plane, in which one of the Soviet plane’s fins struck one of the Norwegian plane’s propellers. According to some accounts, the Soviet pilot also dumped fuel on the P-3’s fuselage, but both planes were able to land safely.
In April 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US EP-3 spy plane off the Chinese coast, causing the Chinese plane to crash and the US plane to make a forced landing on China’s Hainan Island, sparking a diplomatic crisis.
Tuesday’s incident has revived a bipartisan push in Congress for the US to develop a more assertive Black Sea strategy.
“We cannot leave it up to Putin, who chose to invade Ukraine and pursue other forms of aggression in the region, to define the rules of the Black Sea,” the Republican senator Mitt Romney, one of the co-sponsors of a bill that would strengthen the US strategy in the region, said. “It’s critical that the Biden administration develops a robust Black Sea strategy to strengthen the coordination between the US, Nato and our Black Sea partners.”
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