March 15 (UPI) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday the United States would continue to fly drones in international airspace near Ukraine after an encounter with Russian fighter jets that resulted in the loss of an American MQ-9 Reaper.
Austin made the comments at the top of the 10th Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting, which was held virtually. He reiterated that the Reaper was operating in international air space when Russian jets dumped fuel on it and clipped a propeller.
“This hazardous episode is a part of a pattern of aggressive and risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace,” Austin said. “So, make no mistake; the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.
“And it is incumbent upon Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner,” he added, saying Russia acted in a “dangerous, reckless and unprofessional” manner.
Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said Russia will try to recover the wrecked drone to study it, CNN reported.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the remains of the drone may not be recoverable because it crashed into “very deep water” in the Black Sea. He added that the Pentagon was “still assessing” possible recovery.
“I certainly can’t speak for Russian efforts or what they may or may not be trying to take off the surface of the water,” Kirby said. “I can just tell you that we’re still assessing that situation ourselves.”
Russia’s ambassador to the United States gave a different account of the encounter, accusing the United States of intentionally sending the drone into Russian territory.
Anatoly Antonov said Tuesday he was summoned to the U.S. State Department, where he told officials the drone was “moving deliberately and provocatively toward the Russian territory” with its transponders off. He said it “violated the boundaries of the temporary airspace regime established for the special military operation.”
“The Russian fighters scrambled to identify the intruder [and] did not use onboard weapons and did not come into contact with the UAV,” he said. “The unacceptable actions of the United States military in the close proximity to our borders are cause for concern.”
Antonov said he “categorically rejected” assertions by U.S. military officials that Russian fighters intercepted the drone in international airspace, dumped fuel on it, flew in front of it in an “unprofessional” manner and then collided with its propeller.
Antonov said the United States acknowledges making similar drone flights “on a daily basis,” which he said would be used to gather intelligence that would be used by Ukrainian forces against Russia.
“We are well aware of the missions such reconnaissance and strike drones are used for,” he said.
Antonov said Moscow perceives “any actions involving the use of American weapons and military equipment” in Ukraine as “openly hostile.”
“We believe it is important that the lines of communication should remain open,” Antonov said. “Russia does not seek confrontation and stands for pragmatic cooperation in the interests of the peoples of our countries.”
The conflict came as the British Royal Air Force said British and German Typhoon fighter jets operating from Ämari Air Base in Estonia intercepted a Russian Ilyushin Il-78 Midas aerial refueling tanker aircraft that was flying close to Estonian airspace on Tuesday.
The Brits and Germans were flying on a joint patrol mission on behalf of NATO when the interception occurred.
“Any aircraft that are not communicating with air traffic control or on a recognized flight plan will be intercepted by us to ensure we know who they are and maintain flight safety for all airspace users,” the Royal Air Force said in a statement.