The Defense Ministry declared on Friday that Russian fighter pilots who engaged in an encounter with a U.S. drone, causing its crash, were granted state awards. This move by Moscow is perceived as a signal of its intention to adopt a more aggressive stance towards upcoming U.S. surveillance flights.
The pilots of the Su-27 aircraft who prevented an American MQ-9 drone from entering Russia’s temporary airspace were awarded state honors by Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu, according to a statement by the ministry.
The U.S. military has reported that on Tuesday, one of its Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones was deliberately dropped in the Black Sea after being targeted by two Russian fighter jets. The Russian jets had first spilled fuel on the drone and then one of them hit its propeller, causing the drone to malfunction. The incident occurred in international airspace, the military said.
Moscow has denied that its warplanes hit the drone, alleging that it crashed while making a sharp maneuver. It said that its warplanes reacted to a violation of a no-flight zone Russia has established in the area near Crimea amid the fighting in Ukraine.
On Friday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu lauded the pilots for preventing the drone from flying into the area that Moscow has banned for flights. The Defense Ministry said the ban was “in line with international norms.” Moscow reiterated its stance that the pilots “did not use on-board weapons, made no contact with the UAV and safely returned to their home airfield.”
Moscow’s announcement comes a day after the U.S. military released a declassified 42-second video showing a Russian Su-27 fighter jet approaching the back of the U.S. drone and releasing fuel as it passes in a maneuver that appeared to be aimed at blinding the drone’s optical instruments to drive it from the area.
On a second approach, either the same jet or another Russian Su-27 that had been shadowing the MQ-9 struck the drone’s propeller, damaging a blade, according to the U.S. military, which said it then ditched the drone in the sea. The video excerpt does not show the collision, although it does show the damage to the propeller.
The top U.S. and Russian defense and military leaders spoke Wednesday about the destruction of the drone, underscoring the event’s seriousness. The calls between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russian General Staff, were the first since October.
While calling out Russia for “reckless” action, the White House also tried to avoid exacerbating tensions. U.S. officials stressed that lines of communication with Moscow remain open. Top White House national security spokesman John Kirby said that the incident will not deter missions and will not lead to U.S. military escorts of future drone flights.