US and Russia race to respond to downed MQ-9 Reaper drone downed over Black Sea

Defence chiefs Lloyd Austin and Sergey Shoigu discuss incident in first call in months

US says drone crashed after encounter with Russian jet over Black Sea

US says drone crashed after encounter with Russian jet over Black Sea
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US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday that he had spoken to his Russian counterpart about the downing of a US drone over the Black Sea, as tension continues to run high over Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

“I just got off the phone with my Russian counterpart, Minister [Sergey] Shoigu,” Mr Austin said at a Pentagon press briefing.

“As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s important that great powers be models of transparency and communication, and the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.”

It was the first call between the two defence chiefs since October.

Moscow and Washington traded blame for Tuesday's incident, which took place in international airspace near territory Russia has annexed from Ukraine.

The US Air Force said a Russian jet “struck the propeller” of the drone before it was downed into international waters, while Moscow said its jets did not make contact.

Washington said it was working on declassifying surveillance footage from the drone that would detail Tuesday's crash.

Mr Austin and Mr Shoigu's conversation underscored the seriousness of the encounter.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, contact between US and Russian military leaders has been limited, with Russian officials refusing to take US military calls in the early months of the war.

Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he also planned to speak to his Russian counterpart, Gen Valery Gerasimov.

Russia called it proof that the US was directly participating in the war; Washington called it an act of Russian recklessness.

“This hazardous episode is part of a pattern of aggressive, risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace,” Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday at the 10th meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group.

“It is incumbent upon Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner.”

Moscow said it would try to recover the drone wreckage from the sea.

“I don't know whether we'll be able to retrieve it or not but it has to be done. And we will certainly work on it,” Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev said in televised remarks.

Washington said the drone might never be recovered and that steps had been taken to ensure Russia could not gain intelligence from the wreckage.

“It has not been recovered. And I'm not sure that we're going to be able to recover it,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CNN.

“Where it fell into the Black Sea — very, very deep water. So we're still assessing whether there can be any kind of recovery effort. There may not be.

“We've taken steps to protect our equities with respect to that particular drone — that particular aircraft.”

The State Department on Tuesday summoned Russia's ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, to express Washington's concerns over the encounter.

“The message was: Don't do this again,” Mr Kirby added later on ABC.

Mr Antonov said the meeting was constructive and the issue of possible consequences for Moscow over the incident was not raised, RIA state news agency reported.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: March 16, 2023, 6:58 AM