Russia gives medals to fighter pilots who brought down US drone

The Russian fighter pilots that brought down a US drove over the Black Sea will be rewarded with state medals.

The U.S. military said it ditched the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in the Black Sea on Tuesday after a pair of Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the surveillance drone and then one of them struck its propeller while it was flying in international airspace.

Moscow has denied that its warplanes hit the drone, alleging that it crashed while making a sharp manoeuver.

It said that its warplanes reacted to a violation of a no-flight zone Russia has established in the area near Crimea amid the fighting in Ukraine.

On Friday Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu lauded the pilots for preventing the drone from flying into the area that Moscow has banned for flights. The Defense Ministry said the ban was “in line with international norms.”

It came after the Pentagon released footage of what it says was a Russian aircraft pouring fuel on a US Air Force surveillance drone and clipping its propeller in international air space over the Black Sea.

The 42-second video released by the US on Thursday shows a Russian Su-27 approaching the back of the MQ-9 drone and beginning to release fuel as it passes, the Pentagon said, in an apparent attempt to blind its optical instruments and drive it out of the area.

On a second approach, either the same jet or another Russian fighter struck the drone’s propeller, damaging one blade, according to the US military.

The downing of the American spy drone on Tuesday has sparked rising tensions between the US and Moscow, and has led the UK to urge Russia to respect international airspace.

While calling out Russia for “reckless” action, the White House also tried to avoid exacerbating tensions. US officials emphasized that they have not been able to determine whether the Russian pilot intentionally struck the American drone and stressed that lines of communication with Moscow remain open.

Russian officials also emphasized the need to maintain lines of communication, but they harshly denounced American actions as arrogant disregard of Moscow’s no-flight zone.

“This is a clear sign that Russia will keep downing the American drones,” pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov wrote in a commentary on the award announcement. “This decision will receive a strong support from the Russian society that wants the government to toughen its policy.”

Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about US intelligence flights close to Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 amid strong international condemnation. The Kremlin has charged the US and its allies of effectively becoming engaged in the conflict by providing weapons and sharing intelligence with Kyiv.