Austin says US will continue to fly drones over Black Sea and condemns Russian downing as 'aggressive'

Posted 10 days ago


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed on Wednesday that US aircraft will continue to “fly and to operate wherever international law allows,” one day after Russian aircraft hit a US drone over the Black Sea, forcing it to be brought down in international waters.

“This hazardous episode is part of a pattern of aggressive, and risky, and unsafe actions in international airspace,” Austin said at the beginning of a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. “So make no mistake, the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows. And it is incumbent upon Russia to operate as military aircraft in a safe and professional manner.”

Austin was the first Cabinet member in the Biden administration to directly address the incident, which happened on Tuesday when two Russian Su-27 aircraft intercepted a US MQ-9 Reaper drone. President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident by national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday.

Austin confirmed on Wednesday at a Pentagon news briefing that he had spoken to his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, adding that it was critical “great powers be models of transparency and communication.”

In this February 21 photo, a U. S. Air Force 119th Wing MQ-9 Reaper flys over the airfield during Cope North 23 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

What you need to know about the spat between the US and Russia over a downed drone

The downing of the drone marked the first time Russian and US military aircraft have come into direct physical contact since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine a year ago. On Wednesday, a Kremlin spokesperson said that relations between Moscow and Washington are at their “lowest point.” However, the US has not yet announced it is taking any action against Russia over the incident, suggesting the Biden administration may be looking to avoid escalating matters further.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday at the news briefing that the US does “not seek armed conflict with Russia, and I believe that at this point, we should investigate this incident and move on from there.”

The Russian aircraft, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Tuesday, flew in the vicinity of the drone for 30 to 40 minutes before one of the aircraft hit the MQ-9, resulting in the US bringing the drone down into the water.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at a news conference later Wednesday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, declined to speculate as to a Russian motive behind the incident but called it a “reckless and unsafe action.”

Two US officials familiar with the intelligence told CNN that senior officials at the Russian Ministry of Defense gave the order for the Russian fighter jets to harass the US drone, suggesting that the pilots were not taking rogue action when they interfered with the US drone.

At this time, however, there is no indication that the highest of political leaders in Russia – particularly those in the Kremlin, including President Vladimir Putin – knew about the planned aggression in advance, one of the US officials said.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price indicated Wednesday night that there was likely high-level approval of the harassment.

“Our aircraft, our drones have been harassed by Russian pilots almost consistently. And to say that that consistent pattern is the consequence of pilots doing this, Russian pilots doing this on their own volition, that just didn’t ring true,” Price told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on “AC360.” “The fact that we’ve seen a pattern on the part of the forces of the Russian Federation suggests to us at least there’s at least some senior level approval of this kind of activity.”

Whether the military officials set out to plan an incident where the fighter jets would come into physical contact with the drone remains unclear.

“We know that the intercept was intentional. We know that the aggressive behavior was intentional, and we also know it was very unprofessional and very unsafe,” Milley said at the briefing. “The actual contact of the fixed-wing Russian fighter with our UAV, the physical contact with those two, not sure yet.”

Russia says it will attempt to retrieve drone wreckage

National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby told “CNN This Morning” earlier Wednesday that the drone had not been recovered and that he was “not sure” the US would be able to recover it. He previously told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the US took steps “to protect our equities with respect to that particular drone.”... (Read more)