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A U.S. MQ-9 drone at Kandahar Airfield, in Afghanistan, on Jan. 23, 2018.Massoud Hossaini/The Associated Press

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 behaviour and pledged to continue their surveillance.

U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said he spoke to his Russian counterpart on Wednesday about the destruction of the drone, which had brought the two countries closest to direct conflict since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago. It was the first call between Mr. Austin and Russian Defence Secretary Sergei Shoigu since October.

“I just got off the phone with my Russian counterpart, Minister Shoigu,” Mr. Austin said at a Pentagon press briefing. “As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s important that great powers be models of transparency and communication, and the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.”

That Mr. Austin and Mr. Shoigu were talking underscored the seriousness of the encounter over the Black Sea. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, contact between U.S. and Russian military leaders has been limited, with Russian officials refusing to take U.S. military calls in the early months of the war.

Russia has long voiced concern about U.S. surveillance flights near its borders, but Tuesday’s incident signalled 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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Patrushev said.

U.S. officials said Russia has dispatched ships to try to recover the wreckage.

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,” Mr. Kirby said, adding that such an encounter “does increase the risk of miscalculations, misunderstandings.”

Mr. 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 Defence 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.”

Signs of a dialogue emerged immediately. The defence heads of both countries – Lloyd Austin of the United States and Sergei Shoigu of Russia – spoke by phone Wednesday, Russia’s Defence Ministry reported on social media, without stating the topic.

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.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Defence 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. Defence 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 refuelling 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, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said 14 cities and villages were shelled. That included Kramatorsk, where some of Ukraine’s forces are based.

The Russian and U.S. defense ministers held a phone call on Wednesday, the Russian defense ministry said, a day after a U.S. military drone crashed over the Black Sea in an incident Washington called "unsafe" and "reckless."


Ukrainian troops on Wednesday defended positions in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine amid a relentless push by Russian forces to capture a city that has been turned into a wasteland by seven months of fighting.

Both sides claimed successes in what has become the longest-running battle since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago.

Ukrainian officials said that Ukrainian Ground Forces shot down a Russian fighter jet near Bakhmut and made gains in northern parts of the city.

Meanwhile, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the mercenary Wagner Group, which has spearheaded the Russian assault on the city, said in a social-media post Wednesday that Russian forces have taken control of the settlement of Zaliznyanskoye and are expanding the encirclement of Bakhmut.

The claims couldn’t be verified.

The battle for Bakhmut intensified after Russian forces captured the nearby town of Soledar in January. Russian forces must go through Bakhmut to push deeper into parts of the Donetsk province they don’t yet control, though Western officials say that the capture of the city would have limited impact on the course of the war.

An assessment by the U.K. Defence Ministry over the weekend said that paramilitary units from the Wagner Group had seized eastern parts of Bakhmut, with a river flowing through the city marking the front line of the fighting.

Russian troops have enveloped the city from three sides, leaving only a narrow corridor leading west. The only highway west has been targeted by Russian artillery fire, forcing Ukrainian defenders to rely increasingly on country roads, which are hard to use before the muddy ground dries.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky discussed the situation in Bakhmut with top military and intelligence officials on Tuesday and all agreed on the need to hold and defend the city, the presidential office said.

In a small house in a badly bombed village in eastern Ukraine, Battalion Commander Andrii "Tuman," who goes by his call sign meaning "fog," leads his troops. What Ukrainian forces have long described in the city of Bakhmut is also playing out to the north in Luhansk region - more Russian troops, weapons and aggressive tactics that Moscow hopes will produce a badly needed breakthrough.