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Despite downed drone, U.S. says it will keep flying near Ukraine

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies by during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base on Nov. 17, 2015
Isaac Brekken
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Getty Images
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies by during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base on Nov. 17, 2015

Updated March 15, 2023 at 4:15 PM ET

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday told his Russian counterpart that the "United States will fly and operate wherever international law allows," including air space near Ukraine.

Austin delivered his message in a phone call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu a day after two Russian fighter jets confronted a U.S. drone over the Black Sea, off the southern coast of Ukraine.

The Pentagon says the Russian Su-27s harassed the drone for at least a half hour, flying in front of it and dumping fuel on it, before one of the Russian planes clipped a propeller on the drone, forcing it down.

Russia claims its planes made no contact with the drone, saying the U.S. aircraft crashed on its own after making a sharp maneuver.

"We take any potential for escalation very seriously," Austin said of his talk with Shoigu. "I think it's really key that we are able to pick up the phone and engage each other. I think that will help to prevent miscalculation."

Austin spoke to reporters at the Pentagon following a virtual meeting with the more than 50 nations that are supporting Ukraine, many of them members of NATO and the European Union.

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Standing next to Austin, U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon has video footage of the mid-air confrontation, though he's still not sure whether the Russian jet intentionally made contact with the MQ-9 Reaper drone.

"Was it intentional or not? Don't know yet. We know the intercept was intentional. We know the aggressive behavior was intentional. We also know it was very unprofessional," Milley said.

An increase in aggressive Russian behavior

The general noted that U.S. and Russian aircraft operate near one another in a number of places, including Syria, off the coast of Alaska, over the Pacific Ocean, and in the Black Sea.

"The fact that we operate in proximity to each other is not particularly unusual, and we do try to establish deconfliction channels," Milley said. "But there is a (Russian) pattern of behavior recently where there is a little bit more aggressive action being conducted by the Russians."

He added that the U.S. drone probably broke up when it hit the water, and the debris likely sank 4,000 or 5,000 feet to the sea floor. He said a recovery operation would be difficult for anyone, and did not specify what the U.S. is or isn't doing.

The head of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, said Russia was trying to recover the American drone.

U.S. officials have not said exactly where the drone hit the water, but Ukrainian officials said it was about 30 miles off Ukraine's southwestern coast.

Throughout the war in Ukraine, a variety of U.S. aircraft, with and without pilots onboard, have been flying over the Black Sea and over friendly European nations bordering Ukraine.

Tuesday's incident further aggravated the already fraught relations between the U.S. and Russia.

But President Biden has repeatedly stressed he does not want a military confrontation with Russia. He has not sent any American troops to Ukraine, and the U.S. says it's not flying any aircraft over Ukraine.

The State Department summoned Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov on Tuesday in order to voice U.S. objections to the downing of the drone.

Speaking to reporters outside the State Department, Antonov said the Russians had identified a zone for their "special military operation" and that the U.S. drone had no business being where it was.

"What will be the reaction of the United States if you see such Russian drone very close, for example, to San Francisco or New York? What will be the reaction of the United States? For me, it is clear," he said.

Greg Myre reported from Washington, and Charles Maynes from Russia; Michele Kelemen contributed reporting from the State Department.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 14, 2023 at 8:00 PM AKDT
Due to a translation error, a previous version of this story misidentified a Russian Defense Ministry statement. The drone is correctly labeled a MQ-9.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.