The Biden administration released video Thursday of a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a U.S. Air Force surveillance drone as the U.S. sought to hold Russia responsible for the collision that led to the drone’s crash into the Black Sea without escalating already fraught tensions with the Kremlin.
Poland, meanwhile, said it’s giving Ukraine a dozen MiG-29 fighter jets, becoming the first NATO member to fulfill Kyiv’s increasingly urgent requests for warplanes.
The U.S. military’s declassified 42-second color footage shows a Russian Su-27 approaching the back of the MQ-9 Reaper drone and releasing fuel as it passes, the Pentagon said. Dumping the fuel appeared to be aimed at blinding the drone’s optical instruments to drive it from the area.
On a second approach, either the same jet or another Russian Su-27 that had been shadowing the MQ-9 struck the drone’s propeller, damaging a blade, according to the U.S. military, which said it then ditched the aircraft in the sea.
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The video excerpt does not show the collision, although it does show the damage to the propeller.
Russia said its fighters didn’t strike the drone and claimed the unmanned aerial vehicle went down after making a sharp maneuver.
While calling out Russia for “reckless” action, the White House tried to strike a balance to avoid exacerbating tensions. U.S. officials said they have not been able to determine whether the Russian pilot intentionally struck the American drone and stressed that lines of communication with Moscow remain open.
“I can’t point to that video and say this is a deliberate attempt to escalate or … tangibly bring about Putin’s false claim that this is about the West versus Russia.,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. “We have made clear on many occasions, we do not seek a conflict with Russia.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that by providing weapons to Ukraine and sharing intelligence information with Kyiv, the U.S. and its allies have effectively become engaged in the war, now in its 13th month.
Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said Wednesday that an attempt would be made to recover the drone debris.
U.S. officials have expressed confidence that nothing of military value would remain from the drone even if Russia retrieved the wreckage. They left open the possibility of trying to recover portions of the downed $32 million aircraft, which they said crashed into waters that were 4,000 to 5,000 feet (1,200 to 1,500 meters) deep, although the U.S. does not have any ships in the area.
Russia and NATO member countries routinely intercept each other’s warplanes, but Tuesday’s incident marked the first time since the Cold War that a U.S. aircraft went down during such a confrontation, raising concerns it could bring the United States and Russia closer to a direct conflict.
Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about U.S. intelligence flights near the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed.
The top U.S. and Russian defense and military leaders spoke Wednesday about the destruction of the drone, underscoring the event’s seriousness.
The calls between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, as well as between Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russian General Staff, were the first since October.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in its report of the call with Austin that Shoigu accused the U.S. of provoking the incident by ignoring flight restrictions the Kremlin had imposed because of its military operations in Ukraine. The U.S. said the drone was operating in international airspace.
The MQ-9, which has a 66-foot (20-meter) wingspan, includes a ground control station and satellite equipment. It is capable of carrying munitions, but Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, would not say whether the ditched drone had been armed.
The video’s release is the latest example of the Biden administration making public intelligence findings over the course of the war. The administration has said it wants to highlight Russian malicious activity as well as plans for Russian misinformation operations so allies remain clear-eyed about Moscow’s intent.
The White House deferred to Austin on the decision to release it, with the Pentagon and President Joe Biden’s national security aides agreeing it was important to let the world see what happened, according to an administration official familiar with the decision-making process. The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the deliberations, said it took time to go through the declassification process and insisted the administration was not concerned it would further escalate tensions with Russia.
Because the video does not show the actual collision, some involved in the decision to release the footage wondered whether the Russians would seize on that as proof there was no contact between the jet and the drone, according to another official familiar with the discussions about making it public. Those concerns were overcome when the Pentagon explained that the video showed the immediate aftermath and damage to the drone’s propeller, which could have come only from a collision, according to the second official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to disclose the details.
Separately, Polish President Andrzej Duda said Warsaw would give Ukraine four Soviet-made MiG-29s “within the next few days” and that the rest needed servicing and would be supplied later. The Polish word he used to describe the total number of warplanes can mean between 11 and 19.
“They are in the last years of their functioning but they are in good working condition,” Duda added. He did not say whether other countries would follow suit, although Slovakia has said it would send Ukraine its disused MiGs.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded for fighter jets from the West, some NATO members — including the U.S. — have expressed hesitancy.
The White House said Poland gave the U.S. advanced notice of its decision to provide the MiGs.
Kirby, the White House spokesman, called Poland’s providing the fighter jets a sovereign decision and cheered the Poles for continuing to “punch above their weight” in assisting Kyiv, but insisted that Duda’s decision would have no bearing on the U.S. president’s decision, thus far, not to provide American-made F-16s.
Before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine had several dozen MiG-29s it inherited in the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, but it’s unclear how many remain in service.
Duda said Poland’s air force would replace the planes it gives to Ukraine with South Korean-made FA-50 fighters and American-made F-35s.
A crucial ally of Kyiv, Poland hosts thousands of U.S. troops and is taking in more people fleeing the war in the neighboring country than any other nation. It has suffered invasions and occupations by Russia for centuries and still fears Russia despite being a member of NATO.
Authorities in Warsaw also said the security services have detained members of a Russian espionage ring, alleging they were preparing acts of sabotage in Poland and had been monitoring railroad routes used to transport weapons into Ukraine.