Ukraine war: US and Russian military chiefs in rare talks after drone downed
WASHINGTON/KYIV, March 16 (Reuters) – Washington’s top general said the crash of a U.S. surveillance drone after being intercepted by Russian jets showed Moscow’s increasingly aggressive behaviour, while Russia warned Washington that flying drones near Crimea risked escalation.
A day after the U.S. drone went down over the Black Sea, defence ministers and military chiefs from the U.S. and Russia held rare telephone conversations on Wednesday, with relations at their lowest point in decades over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, told his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, that American drone flights by Crimea’s coast “were provocative in nature” and could lead to “an escalation … in the Black Sea zone,” a ministry statement said. Crimea is a peninsula that was part of Ukraine until Moscow annexed it by force in 2014.
Russia, the statement added “had no interest in such a development but will in future react in due proportion” and the two countries should “act with a maximum of responsibility”, including by having military lines of communication in a crisis.
Austin declined to offer any details of the call – including whether he criticized the Russian intercept.
But he reiterated at a news conference that the U.S. intended to continue flying where international law allowed and demanded Russian military aircraft operate in a safe and professional manner.
Austin appeared before reporters at the Pentagon alongside General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had a separate call with Russia’s Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.
The U.S. military has said two Russian Su-27 fighter planes approached its MQ-9 Reaper drone during a reconnaissance mission over the Black Sea’s international waters on Tuesday. The fighters harassed the drone and sprayed fuel on it before one clipped the drone’s propeller, causing it to crash into the sea.
According to Russia, there was no collision. The drone crashed after making “sharp manoeuvres”, having “deliberately and provocatively” flown close to Russian air space. Moscow had scrambled its fighters to identify it.
“There is a pattern of behaviour recently where there is a little bit more aggressive actions being conducted by the Russians,” Milley told reporters, saying it was unclear whether the Russian pilots intended to strike the drone.
Earlier, State Department spokesperson Ned Price, speaking to MSNBC, said the incident was most likely an unintentional act by Russia.
While battles between Ukrainian troops and Russian forces raged on in eastern Ukraine, the drone incident on Tuesday was the first known direct U.S.-Russia encounter since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine about a year ago.
Russia said the episode showed the U.S. was directly participating in the Ukraine war, something the West has taken pains to avoid.
“The Americans keep saying they’re not taking part in military operations. This is the latest confirmation that they are directly participating in these activities – in the war,” Kremlin Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said.
The United States has supported Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in military aid but says its troops have not become directly engaged in the war, which Moscow portrays as a conflict against the combined might of the West.
Kyiv, for its part, said the drone crash showed Moscow was willing to expand the conflict zone to draw in other countries.
BAKHMUT BATTLE CONTINUES
On the ground in Ukraine, Russia kept up its push to capture the small eastern city of Bakhmut and secure its first substantial victory in more than half a year. Milley said Russia was making small advances near Bakhmut but at great cost.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his military top brass had advised reinforcing Bakhmut.
Kyiv had appeared last month to be preparing to pull out of the city but has since decided to defend it, saying it is exhausting Russia’s attacking force there to pave the way for its own counter-attack.
To the north of Bakhmut, Ukrainian troops in a bombed out village near the city of Kreminna were battling to counter what they said was an attempt by Russia to undertake a giant pincer move.
“The Russians try to adapt in real time,” said a member of a drone unit call-signed “Zara”. “This makes great problems for us, because we have to think a couple of steps ahead – how do successfully complete the mission and not let the enemy know how we did it.”
Further south, in the Ukrainian-held town of Avdiivka, Donetsk Region police released video showing the evacuation of citizens, including 9-year-old Daryna and her parrot, Lemon.
Asked by a policewoman how long it had been since she had walked in the city, Daryna said it had been 10 months.
“I dream for the war to end soon,” said Daryna, clad in a bright orange bulletproof vest and helmet.