Russian aircraft collided with a US drone, risking Ukraine escalation

An MQ-9 Reaper drone with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) awaits the next mission over the US-Mexico border on November 4, 2022, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.  | John Moore/Getty Images

This is an “unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians,” the US said.

A Russian warplane forced down a US drone over the Black Sea, the US says, another reminder of the potential escalation risks tied to the Ukraine war.

According to US officials, an MQ-9 drone was conducting “routine” reconnaissance operations at about 7 am local time Tuesday over international waters, when it was intercepted by Russian jets. The aircraft collided with the drone, which damaged its propeller, forcing the US to bring down the drone. “This unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash,” Gen. James B. Hecker, the commander of the US Air Force in Europe, said in a statement Tuesday.

Russia denies its aircraft collided with the drone, saying the US drone crashed because of its own maneuvers.

The US said it would continue to conduct missions in international airspace, and called on Russia to conduct itself safely. “This incident follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with U.S. and Allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea. These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation,” the statement read.

When asked for more information on those alleged previous Russian actions, Megan A. Crusher, public affairs officer for US Air Forces in Europe, said they were “gathering details” and would be in touch with additional information.

The United States has also summoned the Russian ambassador in response to the incident.

The collision, if confirmed, would be the first physical military contact between Russia and the US since the start of the Ukraine war. It is another sign of the larger geopolitical tensions undergirding that conflict. Russia is pressing forward with its offensive, still trying to take Ukrainian territory. At the same time, the United States and its allies are providing Kyiv with economic and security aid that make it possible for Ukraine to fight the war, and potentially deter Russia’s advance and reclaim its territory. The West’s deep involvement, and Russia’s uncompromising focus on pushing ahead with its invasion, are ultimately putting two nuclear superpowers at odds.

So far, Washington appears to be trying to de-escalate the situation, warning Russia about the risk of escalation, while emphasizing the need for professional and safe conduct. Pentagon Press Secretary General Pat Ryder said Tuesday that the US drone was flying over a “busy and international waterway” and this was not an unusual mission for the US, especially this past year.

The White House and the Pentagon also emphasized that intercepts with Russian aircraft were not uncommon occurrences, either — that is, Russian jets just want to see what’s flying around up there. (The Russian jets were flying alongside the US drone for about 30 or 40 minutes before the hit.) Ryder emphasized that the vast majority of these intercepts are safe and professional; what’s different this time is that the Russian jet collided with the US drone and damaged it.

It’s unclear whether the Russian aircraft was also damaged as a result of the collision. The Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement that the US drone “sharply maneuvered,” and then crashed after an encounter with Russian jets near Crimea, which Russia considers part of its territory — all in all, a pretty different take on the incident.

The Russian Navy has effectively blockaded the Black Sea, choking off Ukraine’s ports, and allowing just limited grain to flow through as part of a UN-brokered deal. Still, US officials have insisted the unmanned aircraft was in international airspace and “well clear” of Ukraine. (The Russian Foreign Ministry did not return a request for comment.)

The United States and Russia have had close calls before, including in Syria, where US and Russian jets had midair near misses. As a result, Washington and Moscow set up a “deconfliction” line in Syria, to communicate and avoid other miscalculations. At the start of the Ukraine war, Russia and the US again maintained such a deconfliction line to avoid the potential for similar miscues that could push the two nuclear powers into a more direct confrontation. As of November, it has only been used once, according to reports. Crusher, with US Air Forces in Europe, confirmed to Vox that, ahead of the Russian collision, “no inbound calls to or outbound calls from the deconfliction line were made regarding this incident.”

Right now, the United States and Russia are offering two different takes, which is a troubling sign in any crisis moment. More details are likely to emerge in the coming days and weeks that might offer a clearer picture of the incident.

But this is also part of a larger story, about how the instability in Ukraine perpetually threatens to spill over, either from an apparent blunder or provocation. In November, an errant missile from a Ukrainian air defense system landed in Poland, killing two. This aircraft collision again shows the dangerous balancing act between Moscow and Washington, and how one miscalculation or ill-timed move carries with it the risk of the conflict spreading beyond Ukraine.