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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


The United States and Russia have given conflicting narratives of what happened yesterday in the Black Sea. No doubt more information will emerge with time and we will later have a more accurate picture of events. (The US defence department press secretary intimated yesterday that the US might declassify either video or photographic evidence of this latest incident.)

In the meantime, since I am slowly getting round to writing a book on the US-Russia relationship, I wish to record a few observations. Before doing so, I should give both sides' versions of what happened.

Early yesterday morning, according to the American side, two Russian Sukhoi fighter jets intercepted a US drone flying over the Black Sea. One of the Su-27s dumped fuel onto the drone and then collided with it. It seems the wing of the jet clipped the drone's propeller and, as a result, the damaged drone was guided down into the sea by its remote pilot.

Alternatively. In the Russian telling there was no contact between the fighter jet and the drone. The Russian defence ministry claims that the drone, with its transponder turned off, was flying towards the Russian border and its 'sharp manoeuvring' sent it into an uncontrolled flight and it crashed into the sea. In Mosocw the incident is being described as a US 'provocation'.

My observations/remarks:

1. Easy pickings, but it probably was an accident. When the story broke yesterday afternoon, some journalists on social media seemed to be asking whether this was a deliberate action by the Russian side. I think, judging from my scan of the morning newspaper reports, most now accept that it was likely an accident.

I can't imagine that a pilot would have been instructed to make physical contact with the drone because that presumably risks destabilising the flight of, and bringing down, the jet itself. That would be a risky, potentially very costly, way of signalling to the US military. (Maybe it is worth noting that the drone, with a wingspan of 66ft and weight of at least 2,200kgs, is a pretty hefty piece of kit.)

At the same time, the incident almost certainly was a consequence of an action intended to send a signal to the US military. The Russian jets deliberately intercepted the drone and, I would assume, deliberately dumped fuel on it. So while it is right to avoid rhetoric that accuses Russia of intentionally taking out the drone, it was the result of a deliberate and arguably reckless (or incompetent) action and that should not be downplayed.

2. I'll leave others to speculate about the message Russia was trying to convey since the US hasn't given an explanation of what its drone was being used for. But that in itself is an interesting question to ponder. The MQ-9 drones are used for surveillance but my understanding is that these are quite versatile and could be used for a range of purposes. The US defence department's press secretary wouldn't say whether the drone was armed, for example.

Intercepts are common occurrences. In the words of the US defence department press secretary at the briefing yesterday, such intercepts were 'not uncommon ... not a daily occurrence' in the region. He meant not uncommon actions by Russia, but both Russia and the US use military aircraft (jets or drones) to buzz rivals' airspace as well.

The Russian reference to a provocation would seem to be a claim that the US was using the drone to probe (or 'buzz') airspace within its control. This would be consistent with its claims of 'sharp manoeuvring' as well. It is therefore important to know where exactly the incident occurred - and the comments that we do have appear unfavourable for the Russian version of events.

3. Both sides are being tight-lipped about the precise location of the incident. The Russian claim that the drone was headed towards its airspace clearly means Crimea, which the US and its allies do not recognise as Russian, and it seems public knowledge that this happened off the western coast of the annexed peninsula.

The question is how close to Crimea the drone was flying. First of all, the US defence press secretary's phrasing struck me as quite interesting here. He did not merely repeat that the incident took place in 'international airspace' but, answering a press question, firmly stated that the incident occurred 'well clear of any territory in Ukraine.' If it had fallen into territorial waters close to Crimea, the Americans would, presumably, be describing them as Ukrainian waters and Ukrainian airspace. (With the caveat that it's unclear how much control the drone pilot had over the aircraft in guiding it down and potentially away from Ukrainian territory.)

So that, arguably, already counts against the Russian claims. But, secondly and importantly, the US statement is coupled with the Russian side initially saying that the drone was in airspace 'temporarily restricted' as part of its special military operation in Ukraine. In other words, Russia has not contradicted the US statement that the drone was comfortably in international airspace.

4. By way of a conclusion, diplomacy will probably do its work in smoothing the frictions round the incident. A collision almost certainly took place: the Russian claim that there was no contact seems a bit perverse, and could be quickly disproved if the US military does release some video footage. Nonetheless, if we can see through the fog of the information war, this is another reminder of how easily and quickly everything round Ukraine could escalate into a wider war.

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