US says Russian jet caused spy drone crash in Black Sea, Moscow denies involvement

  • US-Russia face-to-face meeting for the first time since the start of the war in Ukraine
  • Moscow’s ambassador to Washington calls the incident a ‘provocation’

WASHINGTON/KYIV, March 15 (Reuters) – A Russian fighter jet clipped the propeller of one of its spy drones and crashed into the Black Sea, the U.S. military said. Ukraine a year ago.

The Russian Defense Ministry gave a different account and Moscow’s ambassador to Washington said his country viewed the incident involving a US MQ-9 drone and a Russian Su-27 fighter jet as a provocation.

The United States conducts regular surveillance flights in the region and has backed Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in military aid, although it has not been directly involved in the war.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday night that military commanders were unanimously in favor of securing the eastern front, including the desolated city of Pakmut, which has been besieged by Russia for months.

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“The main focus … is Bakmut,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address. “There was a clear position of the entire command: strengthen this sector and destroy the invaders as much as possible.”

Zelensky sacked three regional governors, including Luhansk in the east, Odesa on the Black Sea in the south, and Knelnytskyi region in the west, but the government’s parliamentary representative did not give a reason.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Russia was “on the offensive” along the entire front line in eastern Donetsk region, with fighting also ongoing around Kreminna, Bilohorivka and Spreyn, north of Baghmut.

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Bakhmut’s defense is important because “a large amount of enemy material is destroyed … a large number of troops are killed, and as of today, the enemy’s ability to advance is reduced,” he told Ukrainian television.

On the diplomatic and economic fronts, negotiations continued to extend an agreement to allow grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which the United Nations and Turkey said was set to expire this week. The Kyiv government rejected a Russian push for a 60-day renewal, half the term of the previous renewal.

Drone crash

The US military described two Russian Su-27 jets as recklessly intercepting a US spy drone while flying in international airspace. Russian fighter jets may have dumped fuel on the MQ-9 — perhaps trying to blind it or damage it — and flew in front of it in unsafe maneuvers.

About 30 to 40 minutes later, at 7:03 a.m. (0603 GMT), one of the jets struck the drone, causing it to crash, the US military said.

Russia did not recover the drone and the jet may have been damaged, the Pentagon said.

“Indeed, this unsafe and unprofessional action by the Russians caused both planes to crash,” US Air Force Gen. James Hecker, who oversees US air forces in the region, said in a statement.

Russia’s Defense Ministry has denied that its plane came into contact with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), saying it crashed after a “sharp maneuver”. It said the drone was detected in 2014 near the Crimean peninsula, which is annexed by Moscow from Ukraine.

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“The Russian fighters did not use their internal weapons, did not make contact with the UAV and returned safely to their home airfield,” the Defense Ministry said.

Accounts of the incident in the Black Sea bordering Russia and Ukraine, among other countries, could not be independently verified.

“This is a very sensitive phase in this conflict because it’s the first direct contact between the West and Russia that the public knows about,” said Elizabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The Russian ambassador was summoned

Russian Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Antonov was invited by the US State Department to discuss what happened in the Black Sea, spokesman Ned Price said.

Antonov said his meeting was “constructive” and the issue of possible “consequences” for Moscow was not raised, state news agency RIA reported.

“For us, we do not want any conflict between the United States and Russia. We are in favor of building practical relations for the benefit of the Russian and American people,” Antonov was quoted as saying.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he sees Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine as a defensive measure against a hostile Western bent on expanding into territories historically ruled by Russia.

Ukraine and its Western allies say Russia is waging an unprovoked war of conquest that has destroyed Ukrainian cities, killed thousands and forced millions from their homes.

(This story has been reprinted to add the omitted word “of” in paragraph 1)

Report by Reuters Bureau; By Grant McCool and Stephen Coates; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Himani Sarkar

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