KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia and the United States ratcheted up their confrontational rhetoric Wednesday over a U.S. surveillance drone that encountered Russian warplanes and crashed near Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin has illegally annexed. At the same time, both countries pledged to try to avoid escalation.
The Kremlin said the incident proved again that Washington is directly involved in the fighting and added that Moscow would try to recover the drone’s wreckage from the Black Sea. U.S. officials said the incident showed Russia’s aggressive and risky behavior and pledged to continue their surveillance.
Russia has long voiced concern about U.S. surveillance flights near its borders, but Tuesday’s incident signaled Moscow’s increasing readiness to raise the ante as tensions soar between the two nuclear powers. It reflected the Kremlin’s appetite for brinkmanship that could further destabilize the situation and lead to more direct confrontations.
Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said in televised remarks the drone incident was “another confirmation” of direct U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict. The Kremlin has repeatedly said the United States and other NATO members have become direct war participants by supplying weapons and intelligence to the Kyiv government and pressuring it not to negotiate peace.
Patrushev, a confidant of President Vladimir Putin, also said Russia planned to search for the drone’s debris. A U.S. official said it was unclear whether Washington would recover the fragments, presumed to be in deep water, after securing the information the drone had gathered.
“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.
The U.S. has no vessels in the Black Sea to recover the drone because Turkey shut the Bosphorus Strait to warships in 2022, except for those returning to home port,
U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the MQ-9 Reaper drone was in international airspace when a Russian fighter jet struck its propeller. U.S. officials accused Russia of trying to intercept the unmanned aerial vehicle, although its presence over the Black Sea — a strategic military and economic area for both Russia and Ukraine — was not uncommon.
“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 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.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated the Defense Ministry’s statement that Russian jets didn’t use their weapons or impact the U.S. drone. He repeated his description of U.S.-Russia relations as at their lowest point but added that “Russia has never rejected a constructive dialogue, and it’s not rejecting it now.”
In Washington, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov expressed concern about “the unacceptable actions of the United States military in the close proximity to our borders.”
“What do they do thousands of miles away from the United States?” he said in remarks the Russian Embassy released Wednesday. “The answer is obvious -- they gather intelligence which is later used by the Kyiv regime to attack our armed forces and territory.”
“It is the United States that is leading the situation to a deliberate escalation fraught with a direct armed conflict,” he said, adding that the U.S would have acted more forcefully if a Russian aircraft had appeared near U.S. borders.
He noted that “it is important that the lines of communication should remain open,” emphasizing that “Russia does not seek confrontation and stands for pragmatic cooperation in the interests of the peoples of our countries.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Russian intercept 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 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 anybody should want is for this war in Ukraine to escalate to become something between the United States and Russia,” Kirby said, speaking Wednesday on CNN.
“We’ve been working very, very hard throughout the beginning of this conflict ... to make sure that it doesn’t escalate,” he added.
The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, tweeted the drone incident was “a signal from Putin that he is ready to expand the conflict zone, with drawing other parties in.”
In another tussle, the U.K. Defense Ministry said British and German air force fighter jets were scrambled Tuesday to intercept a Russian aircraft near 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 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.
In Ukraine, at least three civilians were killed and another 23 wounded in Russian strikes over the previous 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said.
In eastern Ukraine’s partially occupied Donetsk province, where much of the heaviest fighting has been concentrated, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said 14 cities and villages were shelled. That included Kramatorsk, where some of Ukraine’s forces are based.
In embattled Bakhmut, where a Russian assault has gone on for months, 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 Donetsk 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. 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 and an apartment building were damaged. No casualties were 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 shut-down Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
In another development, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy continued a campaign to replace governors in areas where fighting is taking place. Without giving a reason, Zelenskyy dismissed the heads of the Luhansk, Odesa and Khmelnytskyi regions.
Volodymyr Fesenko, an analyst at the Penta Kyiv center, said the dismissals “are associated either with a low level of work efficiency or with criticism of abuses.”
Superville reported from Washington. Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.