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Russia Downs An American Drone: Are We At Risk of Escalation?

Staff writer Baaz Chandwan discusses the mounting tensions between the US and Russia following a close encounter in the skies of eastern Europe.

As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, it appears that Russian strategic thought is flirting with the prospect of direct military confrontation with ‘the West’. The most recent event that suggests this dangerous mindset is the downing of an American MQ-9 Reaper Drone over the Black Sea. Whilst Russian claims have been quick to point to the incident as an accident and even deny any contact, the US firmly believe that footage from the drone indicates Russian foul play.

Why was an American Drone Flying Near Crimea?

When Russia initially launched their invasion of Ukraine, a lack of clear strategic information on the ground meant that Europe and the US were clueless as to how to aid Ukrainian forces. Consequently, the Americans began intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance missions, to which deployment of drones remains integral.

These missions proved successful, as the US provided key details to Ukrainian forces regarding the launch of Russian missiles leaving enough time to evacuate and prepare for impact. The drone in question was an MQ-9 Reaper drone. Drones of this nature cost up to $32 million dollars and can fly as high as 50,000 feet, with a wingspan measuring exceeding 20 metres. They hold vital US intelligence reports collected from reconnaissance missions and are also capable of carrying laser-guided missiles – although in this case, the drone was unarmed. The main concern among US policymakers is the potential of classified intelligence entering enemy hands if the Russians are able to recover the drone from the Black Sea. Officials, however, have downplayed this possibility.

The Actual Events and Video Footage

On Tuesday 14 March, at approximately 06:30 GMT, the drone spiralled out of control before crashing into the Black Sea. Despite Russian protests proclaiming their innocence, the video footage recorded by the drone clearly shows that this incident was anything but accidental. It clearly shows two Russian SU-27 fighter jets attempting to disrupt and then collide with the drone, with the harassment carrying on for over half an hour according to American reports. Their attempts to interfere involved dumping fuel over the drone and striking its propellor, causing the sudden loss in altitude.  

The Severity of the Situation

Whilst this may seem a minor affair compared to direct military confrontation, it should not be trivialised. This is the first time since Russia’s invasion began that a Western aircraft has come into direct contact with a Russian counterpart. Although the situation is being diplomatically resolved, certainly many undesirable scenarios could have followed.

Firstly, the MQ-9 Reaper holds vital U.S. intelligence information from reconnaissance missions over the Black Sea and is equipped with extremely valuable infrared and electro-optical sensors. If either classified US intelligence or this advanced technology was to fall into Russian hands, this could give the Russian military a huge foot-up in the war. Secondly, situations like this may easily produce unwanted escalation militarily. Although no direct military response has followed, the Pentagon has been extremely vocal about the potential dangers of such an encounter. Immediately after the incident, the US labelled the clash as “reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional”.

The Russian Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, visited the State Department shortly after the incident took place. Although he agrees that the consequences of the collision could’ve been dire and led to military escalation, he claimed that the US had been warned not to fly within this section of international airspace, unless they wished to show that they were now an active participant in the war. These red lines placed by the Kremlin demonstrate that certain demands are clearly non-negotiable; even demands that are likely contrary to international law and would anger the world’s leading military power.

The Near Future

Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine show no sign of slowing down, but the risk of involvement by neutral powers is increasing at a dangerous rate. Russia is growing ever-more provocative as its advance stalls. After the German approval of sending Leopard 2 tanks as military aid to Ukraine, Putin equated the situation to Stalingrad, when German (Nazi) tanks rolled into Russia. His vague threats referenced Russia’s nuclear capacity.

Western policymakers must be cautious to avoid any form of accidental escalation in order to prevent a disproportionate Russian response. In this case, one should be thankful that the issue is slowly being resolved.



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