KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia wants to recover the fragments of a U.S. surveillance drone that American forces brought down in the Black Sea after an encounter with a Russian fighter jet, a Russian security official said Wednesday.
Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, claimed in televised remarks that Tuesday's incident was “another confirmation” of direct U.S. involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. He said Russia planned to search for the drone's debris.
“I don’t know if we can recover them or not, but we will certainly have to do that, and we will deal with it,” Patrushev said. “I certainly hope for success.” The downed $32 million U.S. drone, which contains sensitive technology, has not been recovered. However, U.S. officials said Russia has already sent ships to the area and attempted to recover pieces of the drone.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he spoke to his Russian counterpart on Wednesday about the destruction of a U.S. drone over the Black Sea, which had brought the two countries closest to direct conflict since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine a year ago. It was the first call between Austin and Defense Secretary Sergei Shoigu since October.
U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the drone was flying in international airspace and over international waters when a Russian fighter jet struck the propeller of the MQ-Reaper drone. Each Reaper costs about $32 million.
U.S. officials accused Russia of attempting to intercept the unmanned aerial vehicle, although its presence over the Black Sea was not an uncommon occurrence.
“It is also not uncommon for the Russians to try to intercept them,” Kirby said, adding that such an encounter “does increase the risk of miscalculations, misunderstandings.”
Kirby said the drone had not yet been recovered and it was unclear whether it would be, but the U.S. “took steps to protect the information and to protect, to minimize any effort by anybody else to exploit that drone for useful content.”
Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, said Russia has the technological capability to recover the drone’s fragments from deep in the Black Sea.
Earlier Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated the Russian Defense Ministry’s statement that Russian jets didn’t use their weapons or impact the U.S. drone.
Peskov described U.S.-Russia relations as being at their lowest point but added that “Russia has never rejected a constructive dialogue, and it’s not rejecting it now.”
At the Pentagon, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the intercept by the Russian jet was part of a “pattern of aggressive, risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace.” He said Russia must operate its aircraft in a safe manner.
“Make no mistake, the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows,” Austin said in opening remarks before a virtual meeting of a U.S.-led effort to coordinate Western military support for Ukraine.
While encounters between Russian and NATO aircraft are not unusual — before the invasion of Ukraine, NATO planes were involved in an annual average of 400 intercepts with Russian planes — the war has heightened the significance and potential hazards of such incidents.
“The last thing that we want, certainly the last thing that anybody should want, is for this war in Ukraine to escalate to become something between the United States and Russia, to have this actually ... expand beyond that,” Kirby said, speaking Wednesday on CNN.
The secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, tweeted Wednesday that the drone incident was "a signal from (Russian President Vladimir) Putin that he is ready to expand the conflict zone, with drawing other parties in.”
Separately, the U.K. defense ministry said British and German air force fighter jets were scrambled Tuesday to intercept a Russian aircraft flying close to Estonian airspace. The U.K. and Germany are conducting joint air policing missions in Estonia as part of NATO’s bolstering of its eastern flank.
The defense ministry said the Typhoon jets responded after a Russian air-to-air refueling aircraft failed to communicate with Estonian air traffic control. The Russian plane did not enter the airspace of Estonia, a NATO member.
On the ground in Ukraine, the fighting ground on. At least three civilians were killed and another 23 wounded in the country by Russian strikes over the previous 24 hours, Ukraine's presidential office said Wednesday morning.
In eastern Ukraine's partially occupied Donetsk province, where much of the heaviest fighting has been concentrated, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said a total of 14 cities and villages were shelled. That included Kramatorsk, a city where some of Ukraine's military forces are based.
In embattled Bakhmut, where Russian forces have pressed a months-long assault to capture the city, Ukrainian forces have successfully fought for northern parts of the city, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said.
“There are certain and significant successes of the armed forces of Ukraine who were able to achieve something in the north of the city,” Maliar told Ukrainian television. “Bakhmut is the epicenter (of fighting in the Donestk region), the Russian occupiers are tryng to encircle and seize the city.”
In the northeastern Kharkiv region, one person was killed and another was wounded in Vovchansk, a city near the border with Russia that is regularly shelled. Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said Russian forces also hit a civilian area of Kharkiv itself, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
“There is no military or infrastructure facility in the vicinity of the place of the strike,” Mayor Ihor Terekhov said. “Only residential buildings and urban infrastructure.”
Speaking on Ukrainian television, Terekhov said a boarding school, where only employees were present, had been damaged, as well as an apartment building. No casualties were immediately reported.
In the south, Russian forces shelled the city of Kherson seven times in the last 24 hours, hitting an infrastructure facility and residential buildings and wounding four people. In Dnipropetrovsk province, Russian forces shelled Nikopol and Marhanets, towns located across a river from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.