Washington has summoned Russia's ambassador to the US to the State Department to express its "strong objection" after a Russian fighter jet struck an American surveillance drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday, causing US forces to bring the drone down in international waters.
"What we saw, again, were fighter aircraft dumping fuel in front of this UAV and then getting so close to the aircraft that it actually damaged the propeller on the MQ-9," said Pentagon Press Secretary, Pat Ryder.
"Because of the damage, we were in a position to have to essentially crash it into the Black Sea," he added.
On the same day, German and British fighter jets intercepted a Russian air-to-air refuelling aircraft near the Estonian border, after it failed to make contact with air traffic control. The German and UK jets escorted it for a few minutes until it flew away.
The incident, although not unusual, came at a time of heightened tensions between NATO and Russia.
'Reckless, environmentally unsound, and unprofessional'
In a statement, the US military described Russia's intercept of its drone as "reckless, environmentally unsound, and unprofessional," adding that "aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation.”
Russia's Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, was later summoned to the state department. Beforehand, he justified the actions of the Russian pilots, claiming that the US would have reacted similarly if the situation was reversed.
"This drone can carry 1,700 kilos of explosives. This drone can carry a few bombs. You'll see what will be the action of the United States if you see such a Russian drone very close, for example, to San Francisco or New York, what will be the reaction of the United States? For me, it's clear," Antonov said.
In a press briefing, US diplomatic spokesman, Ned Price called the incident a "brazen violation of international law."
He added that the US ambassador in Moscow had also conveyed Washington's protests in a message to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The US military says a Russian jet Su-27 jet collided with the unmanned aerial vehicle over the Black Sea, forcing the drone down.
The US European Command said in a statement that two Russian Su-27 fighter jets “conducted an unsafe and unprofessional intercept” of a US MQ-9 drone that was operating within international airspace over the Black Sea.
It said one of the Russian fighters “struck the propeller of the MQ-9, causing US forces to have to bring the MQ-9 down in international waters,” adding that several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in “a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner.”
“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,” it added.
White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said US President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident by national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
Russian and US aircraft have operated over the Black Sea during the course of the war but this is the first known such interaction, a potentially dangerous escalation at a critical time in the fighting.
The Reaper drone, manufactured by the US company General Atomics, is a remotely piloted aircraft of the MALE (medium altitude long endurance) type, equipped with ultra-modern on-board sensors (optronic ball and radar) to carry out surveillance operations at a cruising speed of 335 km/h.
With a wingspan of 20 metres, it has an endurance of more than 24 hours of flight. It can carry several types of weaponry: laser and/or GPS-guided bombs (GBU) or Hellfire missiles. Its ground crew consists of four people.
In addition to the United States, several European armies have Reaper drones in their fleets, including the British, Italians, French, and Spanish.
The skies over the Black Sea are the scene of regular interactions between drones and aircraft from NATO countries and the Russian armed forces.