For the first time since Russia's war in Ukraine began over a year ago, U.S. and Russian military forces came into direct contact on Tuesday, when two Russian Su-27 fighter jets intercepted and damaged an unmanned U.S. MQ-9 surveillance drone over the Black Sea.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, called the crash an unprofessional, dangerous maneuver in international airspace. The Biden administration immediately summoned Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov to the State Department to register its strong condemnation. The Pentagon, meanwhile, released a 43-second clip of the incident on Thursday morning to back up its version of events; the footage showed that Russian pilots not only poured fuel over the U.S. surveillance aircraft, but rammed into its propeller, causing U.S. operators to bring the drone down.
It’s tempting to look at a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russian air forces and assume this is the beginning of a more dire escalation involving the world’s biggest nuclear-weapons powers. But many elements of the event indicate that we needn’t be overly alarmist, at least when considering the immediate implications.
As is usual in these types of incidents, there are some things we don’t yet know. It’s not clear if the Russians deliberately tried to damage the MQ-9’s propeller or whether it was pilot error, for example. State Department spokesman Ned Price is leaning toward the latter explanation, telling MSNBC on Wednesday that the collision was “probably the result of profound incompetence on the part of one of these Russian pilots.”
There is also a question about what the drone was doing in that particular area. Was it part of a regular planned flight over the Black Sea, an international waterway? Or was the MQ-9 conducting an intelligence collection mission on Russian forces stationed in the Crimean Peninsula? The second option wouldn’t be a surprise; the U.S. intelligence community has shared valuable information about Russian weapons locations with Kyiv throughout the war, which the Ukrainian army has effectively used to destroy targets like Russian supply lines and ammunition dumps.
Yet there are other things we do know.
First, as dramatic as this collision is, U.S. and Russian pilots frequently test each other in the air. This is hardly the first time the U.S. and Russian air forces have been in close proximity. Washington and Moscow engage in so many intercepts nowadays that it’s difficult to keep track of them all.
The examples are endless. In October 2021, before the war in Ukraine started, a pair of Russian Su-30 fighters intercepted two U.S. B-1 bombers and two KC-135 midair refueling tankers over the Black Sea, a show of military muscle that may have been related to a series of NATO military exercises in southern Europe the next week. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) often monitors Russian flights in the Pacific and isn’t shy about escorting Russian pilots away from U.S. shores — last October, two U.S. F-16s intercepted two Russian Tu-95s that were approaching Alaska’s air defense identification zone. In Syria, where the U.S. has roughly 900 troops on the ground and enforces a de-facto no-fly zone east of the Euphrates River, it’s not uncommon for American and Russian pilots to operate in the same airspace. Nearly 3,000 miles to the north, NATO’s air policing mission is constantly on call in the event Russian pilots breach the alliance’s airspace — indeed, on the same day Russia harassed the U.S. drone, British and Germany fighter jets picked up a Russian refueling plane several dozen miles from Crimea that was approaching Estonia’s borders without prior communication.
As mentioned above, as tempting as it is to assume that this is the beginning of a more dire escalation, it fortunately doesn’t seem like Washington or Moscow wants to escalate matters any further. While Russia’s conduct was anything but responsible, both sides are responsibly trying to bring the matter to a close. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin quickly got on the phone with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Milley also spoke with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, to convey Washington’s strong disapproval. Antonov, Russia’s ambassador in Washington, made it known that his country didn’t want “to create a situation where we can face unintended clashes,” in large measure because the Russian army is in no shape to even consider escalation with the world’s most powerful military (the Russian military’s capacity has been depleted after 12 months of high-intensity conflict in Ukraine). U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby expressed a similar desire to reduce the tension: “The last thing that anybody should want is for this war in Ukraine to escalate to become something between the United States and Russia.” Milley perhaps said it best: “I believe that at this point we should investigate this incident and move on from there.”
Of course, there’s an open question about whether these two great powers can minimize escalation over the long term. The longer the war in Ukraine goes on, the more likely a similar or even worse incident occurs that claims lives and leads the U.S. and Russia toward the very confrontation both sides rightly want to avoid.