Top leadership in the Kremlin approved its fighter jets to perform the aggressive maneuvers that damaged a U.S. spy drone over the Black Sea Tuesday morning and caused the U.S. to crash it into the water, NBC News reported, citing U.S. intelligence officials.
Officials said that “highest levels” of leadership in Moscow authorized the two Russian SU-27 fighter jets to perform what the U.S. has condemned as unsafe and unprofessional actions, according to NBC News. Although the Kremlin denied its military conducted any any dangerous interactions with the U.S. MQ-9 surveillance aircraft, the Penatgon released drone footage Thursday morning showing the Russian planes dumping fuel on the drone and damage sustained on one of the propeller blades.
It was “Russian leadership’s intention to be aggressive in the intercept,” one of the officials told NBC News.
However, another official said the he did not see any indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself gave the orders.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he held a rare phone call with his Russian counterpart Wednesday but declined to go into detail about the content of the conversation.
“The United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows, and it is incumbent upon Russia to operate as military aircraft in a safe and professional manner,” Austin told reporters.
During the same briefing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the Pentagon had not assessed whether the Russian jets deliberately made contact with the drone, adding that “no question” remained regarding whether the overall aggressive behavior was intentional.
“We know that the aggressive behavior was intentional. We also know it was very unprofessional and very unsafe,” he said.
Russian ships and aircraft have reached the area where the drone landed and are actively searching for the debris, although much of it likely sank deep below the surface, officials told NBC News. There is no indication that Russia has recovered any part of the damaged MQ-9, officials told the outlet.
Milley said Wednesday recovery operations would be difficult even if parts of the drone were salvageable.
Further investigation into the incident is warranted, Milley added. He warned against characterizing the incident as an act of war, saying that “incidents happen.”
Both officials underscored the need to prevent occurrences that could lead to escalation between Russia and the U.S. as tensions run sky-high between the two countries over Russia’s war in Ukraine and U.S. military support to the resisting country.
Milley confirmed that the incident fits into a “pattern of behavior” from the Russian military in recent months.
Normally, Russian and U.S. forces operating in close proximity to one another take deliberate steps to remain physically separated and keep deconfliction lines open, Milley said. However, the Russian military has become more provocative, as the latest incident shows, and similar incidents have occurred between Russian and allied European forces, he added.
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