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The New York Sun
Russia’s Downing of American Drone Being Treated as Accident
By DONALD KIRK,
Call it “an unprofessional act” or an act of war, but the downing Tuesday of an American drone aircraft by a Russian fighter jet over the Black Sea raises the specter of armed conflict between Yanks and Russians that President Biden has been carefully avoiding.
For now, the State Department is treating the incident as a serious accident in which the Russian SU-27 fighter, shadowing the MQ-9 Reaper in tandem with another SU-27, struck the drone’s propeller, sending it hurtling into the sea. The SU-27 flew off, no doubt damaged but able to get away with its partner plane.
Washington considers the collision as a major incident in which the Russians had been deliberately harassing the unmanned drone, capable of high-altitude surveillance as well as bombing runs. In this case, the Russians may have suspected the drone of keeping watch over a nearby Russian base.
At the least, the White House and the Department of State accused the Russians of “unprofessional conduct” in which the SU-27’s had been flying perilously close to the drone, dumping fuel on it, apparently to persuade its remote handlers to call off the mission.
Sensitive to the possibility of war at some stage breaking out between America and Russia, the state department said the incident constituted “a brazen violation of international law,” while the U.S. European Command said the Russians were guilty of “unsafe and unprofessional conduct.”
The flurry of statements indicated, however, that Washington did not want the incident to escalate into constant games of dare and double-dare that might finally erupt into both sides shooting at one another.
Mr. Biden, in his support of Ukraine against the Russian invasion, has drawn the line at going to war, denying air cover for Ukraine forces while plying them with billions of dollars’ worth of arms. The point is, if American planes sought to turn the skies over Ukraine into a “no-fly zone,” they would inevitably have to ward off Russian aircraft — and possibly attack air bases inside Russia.
At issue in Tuesday’s incident was the right of American aircraft, manned or unmanned, to fly above the Black Sea regardless of the fighting in Ukraine.
The state department spokesman, Ned Kirby, made clear the Americans were going to continue with such missions, warning the Russians that if “they want to deter or dissuade us from flying and operating in international air space,” then “that message will fail.”
The commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe, General James Hecker, described the drone flight as “routine.” The plane, with a 66-foot wingspan, is capable of flying 1,500 miles without refueling. It was a complete loss.
It’s unlikely, of course, that the pilot of the SU-27 really intended to touch the drone. General Hecker said “the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.” If nothing else, a command statement said, the episode indicates “a lack of competence.”
Yet would the Americans be satisfied if skilled Russian fighters go on harassing American drones, making sure to avoid them? The incident dramatized the danger of war breaking out almost by chance while the real fighting goes on inside Ukraine, whose southernmost major city, Odessa, is a Black Sea port.