Russia trolled the US Friday by handing out state awards to the fighter pilots who brought down an American surveillance drone over the Black Sea this week.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu presented awards to the pilots of two Su-27 warplanes that intercepted the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper drone, clipped its propeller, and dumped fuel on it before it went down Tuesday, according to the US narrative.
The incident, described by the US military as “reckless,” marked the first known direct military encounter between Russia and the US since the start of the Ukraine war — and marked a new low point in relations between Washington and Moscow.
The incident marked the first known direct military encounter between Russia and the US since the start of the Ukraine war.
Announcing the honors, Shoigu’s ministry repeated Russia’s official version of events – strongly disputed by Washington — that the planes did not make any physical contact with the drone.
“As a result of sharp maneuvering… the MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle went into uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and collided with the water surface,” a press release shared on the ministry’s Telegram channel stated.
“The Russian fighters did not use airborne weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle, and returned safely to their base airfield,” the statement continued.
According to the ministry, the drone had been flying with its transponders turned off and violating airspace restrictions that Russia had made public in connection with the conflict in Ukraine.
The Pentagon had said the Russian fighter planes sided up to its MQ-9 Reaper during a reconnaissance mission over the Black Sea in international airspace.
It said the fighters harassed the drone and made contact with it, causing it to crash.
The DoD on Thursday released a dramatic 42-second edited video showing a Russian fighter jet coming close to the drone, fuel being jettisoned near it in an apparent attempt at blinding the drone’s optical instruments, and a damaged propeller in the aftermath.
A day earlier, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it “remains to be seen” whether the downing of the $30 million drone was intentional.
“We know that the intercept was intentional. We know that the aggressive behavior was intentional — we also know it was very unprofessional and very unsafe,” he said.
Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the US, justified the actions of the Su-27 pilots as a response to the US “deliberately and provocatively” encroaching on Moscow’s airspace.
“The unacceptable activity of the US military in the close proximity to our borders is a cause for concern,” Antonov wrote on his Telegram channel.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed the incident with Shoigu Wednesday in their first phone conference since October.
“Sergei Shoigu pointed out that the incident was caused by the US actions of non-compliance with the flight restriction zone declared by the Russian Federation established in connection with the [war], as well as increased reconnaissance activities against the interests of the Russian Federation,” the Russian Defense ministry said in a statement following the call.