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Despite downed drone, U.S. says it will keep flying near Ukraine

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies by during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base on Nov. 17, 2015
Isaac Brekken
Getty Images
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies by during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base on Nov. 17, 2015

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says the U.S. will continue flying 'wherever international law allows.' This comes a day after Russia downed a U.S. drone in the Black Sea.

Updated March 14, 2023 at 3:25 PM ET

The U.S. military says a Russian fighter plane clipped the propeller of a MQ-9 drone, forcing it to crash in the Black Sea, a version of events strongly challenged by Moscow.

It's one of the most serious incidents involving U.S. and Russian militaries in the volatile region in and around Ukraine.

The U.S. military says two Russian fighter jets carried out a "reckless" intercept of the American drone, which was flying in international air space over the Black Sea.

The Russian jets initially flew in front of the American drone several times and dumped fuel on it.

Eventually, one of the Russian planes clipped the propeller of the drone, causing it to crash, the military said.

The U.S. said this was part of a pattern of "dangerous actions by Russian pilots."

The Pentagon said today that the U.S. military was forced to crash the drone as a result of damage caused in the collision with the Russian jet. Speaking to reporters, Brigadier General Pat Ryder provided no updates on the recovery process for the pilotless aircraft, but said that Russia had not recovered it at this point.

Russia offers a different account

The Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement with a starkly different take on the incident.

According to the Ministry, Russia radar noticed a "lethal MQ-9 apparatus" heading toward the Russian border around 9:30 a.m. local time. The Ministry then launched Russian fighter jets "with the goal of identifying" the device that, it claimed, was flying with its transponders off — in violation of Russian notifications issued amid the war in Ukraine.

The drone then lost control and struck the water "as a result of a sharp maneuver," according to the Ministry statement.

The Russian fighter jets fired none of their weapons nor made any direct contact with the device before "safely returning to airbase," the statement concluded.

U.S. objects strongly, summons Russian ambassador

President Biden was briefed on the collision earlier this morning, White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

"It is not uncommon ... for there to be intercepts by Russian aircraft of U.S. aircraft over the Black Sea, so this is not an uncommon occurrence," Kirby said, noting there have been such intercepts in recent weeks.

But Kirby said this one was "noteworthy" because of how "unsafe" and "reckless" it was, in that it caused the downing of a U.S. aircraft.

The U.S. State Department says it had engaged at high levels with allies and partners to brief them on this incident. They are also summoning the Russian ambassador to the State Department to voice their objections, and the U.S. ambassador to Moscow has conveyed a "strong message" to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The U.S. military has not been directly involved in the war in Ukraine, but does conduct constant surveillance flights over nearby countries and in international air space. Analysts say today's incident fits into a pattern of Russian "coercive signaling."

Myre reported from Washington; Maynes from Russia; Michele Kelemen contributed reporting from the State Department

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 14, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
Due to a translation error, a previous version of this story misidentified a Russian Defense Ministry statement. The drone is correctly labeled a MQ-9.
Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.