The Pentagon has released the first footage from the surveillance drone that crashed over the Black Sea, showing Russian fighter jets passing close to the unmanned aircraft and dumping fuel on it.
The 42-second colour video clip was released amid a dispute over what took place in the Tuesday incident, which further raised tensions between Washington and Moscow against the backdrop of war in Ukraine.
The video shows two Russian fighter jets making high-speed passes and both spraying fuel on the drone. The US military said these were the final two passes of the Su-27 aircraft before the American drone crashed and that both jets involved in the incident were captured in the clip.
During the second approach shown in the footage, the US military said one fighter jet collided with the drone, though this cannot be seen in the video. The impact took the American drone’s camera feed down for about 60 seconds. When the video is restored, one of the drone’s propellers appears to be damaged.
Russia has denied downing the US drone, saying it lost control “as a result of a sharp manoeuvre” and crashed into the sea without Russian involvement.
The incident prompted a rare phone call on Wednesday between US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu. The US chair of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, also spoke with his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov to raise concerns about the episode.
The US State Department summoned the Russian ambassador to the US to denounce the incident, which the Biden administration has described as “unsafe”, “unprofessional” and “reckless”.
The US military said the video was edited for length but showed the events in sequential order. Military officials have said two Russian fighter jets flew near the MQ-9 for about 30 to 40 minutes before one of the jets collided with it and caused it to crash.
Russia’s defence ministry said late on Wednesday that Shoigu told Austin the incident took place because the US violated Russia’s flight restriction zone off the coast of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
He described drone flights as “provocative” and creating “prerequisites for escalation”. Russia, he said, was not interested in escalation, but would continue to “respond proportionately to all provocations”.
Ukrainian national security chief Oleksiy Danilov said the incident signalled Kremlin’s “readiness to expand the conflict zone”.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, said on Thursday that while the video bolstered the Americans’ version of events, the Biden administration still does not know whether the Russian fighter jet intentionally hit the US drone.
“At best, it’s reckless flying; at worst it’s reckless and incompetent. We don’t know whether it was also intentional . . . and have made clear on many occasions we do not seek a conflict with Russia,” he said.
Any airspace restrictions claimed by Russia “are not legal”, Kirby added. “We are going to continue to fly and operate in accordance with international law.”
Additional reporting by Polina Ivanova in Berlin