Drone Reaper US
This handout photo courtesy of the US Air Force obtained on November 7, 2020 shows an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) flying over the Nevada Test and Training Range on January 14, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Washington/ Kyiv: Moscow told Washington on Wednesday to keep well away from its air space after a US drone intercepted by Russian jets crashed into the Black Sea, the first known direct confrontation between the superpowers since Russia attacked Ukraine.

The US military said the incident was caused by a mid-air collision after two Russian Su-27 fighter planes approached one of its MQ-9 Reaper drones on a reconnaissance mission over international waters.

The fighters harassed the drone and poured fuel on it, before one clipped the drone’s propeller, causing it to crash into the sea, Washington said.

“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,” said James B. Hecker, commander of US air forces in Europe. White House spokesman John Kirby said US officials had told Russia’s ambassador Anatoly Antonov that Moscow should be more careful in international air space.

Moscow denied the aircraft had collided and said the drone had crashed after “sharp manoeuvres”. It said the drone had “deliberately and provocatively” flown close to Russian air space with its transponders off, and Moscow had scrambled fighters to identify it.

“The unacceptable activity of the US military in the close proximity to our borders is a cause for concern,” Antonov, the ambassador, said in a statement, accusing Washington of using drones to “gather intelligence which is subsequently used by the Kyiv regime to strike at our armed forces and territory”.

“Let us ask a rhetorical question: if, for example, a Russian strike drone appeared near New York or San Francisco, how would the US Air Force and Navy react?” he said, calling on Washington to “stop making sorties near the Russian borders”.

Anatoly Antonov Russia envoy to US
Anatoly Antonov, centre, Russian ambassador to the United States, arrives for a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Karen Donfried at the US State Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 14, 2023. Image Credit: AP

The Kremlin said there had been no high-level contacts with Washington over the incident. Bilateral relations were “in a very lamentable state” but “Russia has never refused constructive dialogue, and is not refusing now”, said spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Kyiv, for its part, said the incident showed Moscow was willing to “expand the conflict zone” to draw in other countries. Russia was raising the stakes as it faces “conditions of a strategic defeat” in Ukraine, tweeted Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council.

Washington has said neither it nor the Russians had recovered the wrecked drone.

The United States conducts regular surveillance flights in international air space in the region. It has supported Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in military aid but says its troops have not become directly engaged in the war.

Battle for Bakhmut

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy repeated his commitment to defending Bakhmut, the small eastern city that has become the target of Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two.

Moscow has waged a winter offensive involving hundreds of thousands of freshly called-up reservists and convicts recruited from jail as mercenaries. It is trying to capture Bakhmut to secure its first substantial victory in more than half a year.

Kyiv had appeared likely last month to be preparing to pull out of the city but has since doubled down on defending it, saying it is exhausting Russia’s attacking force there to pave the way for its own counter-attack later this year.

Zelenskiy said in an overnight address that he had met his top military brass, and the main focus was on Bakhmut: “There was a clear position of the entire command: Strengthen this sector and destroy the occupiers to the maximum.”

Some Western and Ukrainian military experts have questioned whether it makes sense for Kyiv to continue the battle for Bakhmut, because of its own heavy losses there.

Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said the defence of Bakhmut was important because a “large amount of enemy material is being destroyed ... A huge number of troops are being killed and as of today, the enemy’s capacity to advance is being reduced.” Intense fighting has also been under way north of Bakhmut, where Russia is trying to recapture territory it lost to a Ukrainian counter-offensive last year, and further south, where Moscow took heavy losses in failed assaults on the Ukrainian-held bastion of Vuhledar in February.

In the latest internal shakeup in Ukraine, Zelenskiy dismissed the governors of three regions: Luhansk in the east, Odesa on the Black Sea in the south and Khmelnytskyi in the west. No reason was given. He has replaced several other governors since the start of the year, including the leadership of most of the frontline provinces.