- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2023

Russian crews are scouring the Black Sea for remnants of the American MQ-9 Reaper that crashed there Tuesday, Pentagon officials said, while the U.S. military made public on Thursday raw video footage that seems to show a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on the drone and clipping its propeller just before it went down.

Even as U.S. military officials tried to keep the focus on Ukraine and its fight against Russian invaders, high-stakes questions about the drone crash remain unanswered, including whether Moscow could get its hands on sensitive data if it finds the wreckage before the U.S. or its allies do. Russian personnel on Thursday were reportedly near where the MQ-9 crashed, though Pentagon leaders stressed that the drone likely broke apart upon impact and whatever is left is at least 4,000 feet underwater, making recovery efforts difficult.

Russian officials again blamed the U.S. for the incident and charged that the U.S. is increasingly risking a direct confrontation by flying surveillance drones over the Black Sea near the coast of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed forcibly in 2014 and claims as its own territory.

The back-and-forth between Washington and Moscow nearly overshadowed other key developments Thursday, including Poland’s announcement that it will send a dozen MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, the first formal offer from a NATO member in the face of multiple pleas from Kyiv.

The Polish offer will put new pressure on the Biden administration to send its own American F-16 planes to Ukraine and deliver what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said would be a potential game-changer in the country’s war effort.

Ukraine’s Interfax news service reported that Gen. Mykola Oleschuk, the country’s top air force commander, is asking NATO countries to establish an “aircraft coalition” that would supply Ukraine with modern aircraft.

“Victory on the ground is indeed forged in the sky and such an ‘aircraft coalition’ could work according to the principle of the ‘tank coalition’” that is rushing Western tanks to the Ukrainian front lines, a spokesman for Gen. Oleschuk told the news service. NATO-supplied fighter jets would “enable us to seize the airspace over Ukraine as soon as possible and help our ground forces,” the spokesman added.

A United Nations-backed inquiry released Thursday found that Russian attacks against civilians in Ukraine amounted to war crimes, possibly even crimes against humanity. The panel cited systematic torture and other horrific abuses by Russian troops.

Pentagon officials tried to keep the focus squarely on the war itself and on delivering the equipment Ukraine needs to win. They rejected the Kremlin’s assertion that the war is rapidly transforming into a conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

“The United States’ focus in the region … is solely on providing Ukraine with the support it needs to defend itself,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters. “The United States does not seek conflict with Russia. We do not seek escalation with Russia.”

It’s not clear exactly what the U.S. military is doing to find and recover the MQ-9 wreckage. Gen. Ryder seemed to downplay the ramifications of the Russians finding the drone first. He said military personnel had taken steps to “safeguard” any sensitive data on board.

“We do have indications that … Russia is likely making an effort to recover MQ-9 debris,” he said. “We assess it’s very unlikely they would be able to recover anything useful given a couple of factors: one … that we took steps to protect information aboard that aircraft, and two, the fact that it crashed in extremely deep water.”

“We have capabilities, means at our disposal, to safeguard information that we have taken,” he added.

The Kremlin rejected any blame for the collision of the MQ-9 and a Russian Su-27 fighter jet. Russian officials said its planes did not fire on or strike the American craft. They said the U.S. drone got into an “uncontrolled flight” and crashed into the sea.

Dramatic video

The Pentagon’s European Command on Thursday released a dramatic 42-second video that seems to at least partially confirm the U.S. version of events. U.S. officials say the footage shows a Russian aircraft flying dangerously close to the MQ-9. On its first pass, the Russian plane appears to dump fuel in the U.S. craft’s flight path in a bid to disable the drone.

The drone was undamaged after the first encounter. A short time later, the Russian jet made a second pass to dump more fuel but also appeared on course to crash into the propeller of the MQ-9. The apparent collision temporarily killed the drone’s video feed.

The video is then briefly restored.

The exact moment of impact is not entirely visible on the video, perhaps giving the Kremlin an opening to dispute the American version of events, but the footage clearly shows the MQ-9 with a damaged propeller.

Details aside, Russia took aim at U.S. rationale for flying drones near what it claims is Russian territory and said Washington is fueling escalation.

The “United States is constantly trying to create some kind of provocation to fuel confrontational thinking. This is not good,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, according to comments published on the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Telegram channel.

“As far as global security is concerned, any incident that triggers a clash between two of the great, major nuclear powers carries very serious risks. They surely realize this,” he said.

Russian officials have accused the U.S. of using its surveillance drones to gather information and funnel it to Ukraine. That information is then used to target Russian troops and vessels patrolling the Black Sea, Moscow says.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the military was still weighing its options.

Asked whether Russia would try to raise the drone from the seabed to examine it, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov replied: “This is the prerogative of the military. If they deem it necessary to [retrieve the drone] in the Black Sea for our interests and for our security, they will deal with that.”

Russian and Ukrainian troops are locked in bitter fighting in several theaters in eastern Ukraine, including the city of Bakhmut, which remains under fierce attack by Russian forces. Ukrainian forces have held control of the city, though there are growing questions about whether Kyiv is using resources in the fight for Bakhmut that otherwise could be used for its looming spring offensive campaign.

Ukraine has pleaded with the West for fighter jets to aid in that offensive. Most NATO nations have been reluctant to provide jets out of fear of risking an escalation with Russia, but Polish President Andrzej Duda said Thursday that his country will send four MiGs to Ukraine immediately. Other jets need maintenance and repairs but will be delivered to Kyiv soon, he said.

“They are in the last years of their functioning, but they are in good working condition,” the Polish president said.

Poland’s decision will put more pressure on President Biden to sign off on F-16 deliveries to Ukraine. Last month, Mr. Biden said he was ruling out “for now” the prospect of sending F-16s despite growing pressure to do so.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby told CNN on Thursday that Poland’s decision had not altered Mr. Biden’s opinion, even as the president faced pressure from Kyiv supporters of both parties on Capitol Hill to do more.

“It doesn’t change our calculus with respect to [sending Ukraine] F-16s,” Mr. Kirby told the cable network. “These are sovereign decisions for any country to make, and we respect those sovereign decisions.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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