Russia and the US stand off over a drone-jet collision

The United States and Russia have historically been rivals in aerospace. From the space race, to the bomber gap, to the competition between the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 and the McDonnell Douglas F-15, the two countries have often sparred over airspace and used their different technological specialties in order to jockey for power.

The most recent incident is a collision between a Russian Sukhoi Su-27 and a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone, a multipurpose unmanned aerial vehicle. The collision occurred on March 14, over the Black Sea.

Currently, both powers have published a different story about the incident. The United States maintains that the drone was not operating in Russian airspace and had not committed any action meriting the actions of the jet. By piecing together public information, it appears the drone launched from Romania, flew over the neutral parts of the Black Sea, at which point it came into contact with the Su-27. From the video of the drone’s downing a bit more of the story can be pieced together. The Su-27 noted the existence of the drone, flew over it, dumped fuel, and then clipped the drone’s propeller. The clipped propeller caused the drone to crash, where Russia now claims to want to attempt a recovery. According to the U.S., there is nothing sensitive on the drone. The released video is also edited, shortened from the initial 30-40 minute interaction the U.S. claims. The U.S. also maintains that they did not violate any international airspace laws, and pledges to continue to operate in the Black Sea and other neutral zones bordering NATO allies.

While there are no full versions of the video as of yet, there is no competing evidence from the Russian Foreign Ministry, outside of blaming the United States for the collision. Russia maintains that the drone was en route to violate Russian airspace and awarded medals to the pilots for protecting their country. Russia alleges that there was no interaction with the drone, something that the video does not affirm. In addition, Russia has claimed that the drone was flying with its transponders off — a move some aircraft take when shielding their movement from flight trackers, and blamed the crash on harsh maneuvering. The government also claims that no weapons were used, which the U.S. video does confirm, though a fuel dump seems to have been the desired method instead. Considering that the fuel doesn’t seem to damage the drone, but some sort of contact does, the claim that the Russian plane did not suffer any effects is also unconfirmed as of now.

Russia has used this to further threaten Ukraine, again arguing that the country has imposed a no-fly zone, unilaterally, over the region where they’re conducting their invasion. Although that may have been imposed by the Russians, it does not appear that they are able to maintain that no-fly zone, which would put the claim not only into severe doubt, but would also bring into question the Russian response to the incident on the whole. Should the country be claiming vast chunks of neutral international waters as contested airspace they don’t want to see planes in, then it is likely they will continue to clash with the U.S., Turkey or Romania flying routine missions out of bases in the area.

Soviet and American pilots have had a history of so-called ‘buzzing’ each other’s aircraft, by flying too close or disrupting a pilot’s ability to fly. However, this is the first incident of this type since the end of the Cold War, and may indicate that Russia is more willing to risk putting American resources in danger as the U.S. ramps up its support for the Ukrainian defense of their country.