US officials have expressed confidence that nothing of military value would remain from the drone even if Russia managed to retrieve the wreckage.
Russia and NATO member countries routinely intercept each other’s warplanes, but the drone incident marked the first time since the Cold War that a US aircraft went down during such a confrontation, raising concerns it could bring the US and Russia closer to a direct conflict.
Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about US intelligence flights near the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed.
The top US and Russian defence and military leaders spoke on Wednesday about the destruction of the drone, underscoring the event’s seriousness.
The calls between US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russian General Staff, were the first since October.
The Russian Defence Ministry said in its report of the call with Austin that Shoigu accused the US of provoking the incident by ignoring flight restrictions the Kremlin had imposed because of its military operations in Ukraine.
The Kremlin argues that by providing weapons to Ukraine and sharing intelligence information with Kyiv, the US and its allies have effectively become engaged in the war, which is now in its 13th month.
Russia also blamed “the intensification of intelligence activities against the interests of the Russian Federation,” the Defence Ministry said.
Such US actions “are fraught with escalation of the situation in the Black Sea area,” the ministry said, warning that Moscow “will respond in kind to all provocations”.
Sergei Aksenov, the Moscow-appointed head of Crimea, said he thinks Russia should act even more forcefully to put an end the US surveillance flights in the area.
“I personally think that our response in such situations should be tougher,” Aksenov said on his messaging app channel. “We realise that attempted attacks on Crimea have been launched with Americans’ guidance. In fact, they are a warring party.”
The MQ-9, which has a 20-metre wingspan, includes a ground control station and satellite equipment. It is capable of carrying munitions, but Air Force brigadier general Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, would not say whether the ditched drone had been armed.
Ryder said the incident occurred at 7.03am (Central European Time) over international waters, and well clear of Ukraine, after the Russian jets had flown in the vicinity of the drone for 30 to 40 minutes.
There did not appear to be any communications between the aircraft before the collision, Ryder added.
The US has not recovered the crashed drone, US Air Forces-Europe said in a statement, and neither has Russia, Ryder said. Russian officials said on Wednesday that they would try to salvage fragments of the MQ-9 from the Black Sea.
US officials have left open the possibility of trying to recover portions of the downed $US32 million drone, which they said crashed into waters that were 1200 to 1500 meters deep.
Other US officials said the US does not have military ships in the region and likely won’t attempt to recover the wreckage.
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