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Was Russian interception of US drone by Sukhoi pilots turning point in Ukraine war?

On Thursday, the US European Command released declassified footage of Russian Su-27 aircraft intercepting the US Air Force MQ-9 over the Black Sea on March 14 (Image courtesy: Twitter/@US_EUCOM)

Russia on Friday awarded pilots of the Su-27 aircraft who “prevented the violation” by the American MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle over the waters of the Black Sea “in the area of the Crimean peninsula” on the morning of March 14.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu presented the state awards to the pilots a day after the US European Command (USEUCOM) released declassified footage of the Russian Su-27 aircraft “conducting an unsafe/unprofessional intercept” of a US Air Force MQ-9 “in international airspace” over the Black Sea on Tuesday.

Washington has accused that one of the Russian Su-27 aircraft struck the propeller of the MQ-9, causing US forces to have to bring the MQ-9 down in international waters. The US said that several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 “in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner”.

On the other hand, Moscow stated on Friday that its fighters did not use airborne weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle and returned safely to their base airfield.

“The flight of the unmanned aerial vehicle was carried out with transponders turned off, violating the boundaries of the area of the temporary regime for the use of airspace, established for the purpose of conducting a special military operation, communicated to all users of international airspace and published in accordance with international standards,” said the Russian Defence Ministry.

It maintained that “sharp maneuvering” resulted in the MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle going into uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and colliding with the water surface.

Accusations and counter-claims have flown thick and fast between Washington and Moscow since Tuesday.

“Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9,” said US Air Force General James B. Hecker, Commander of the US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa.

The US European Command is responsible for US military operations across Europe, portions of Asia and the Middle East, the Arctic, and the Atlantic Ocean.

“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash. US and Allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and safely,” Hecker added.

Russia too blamed the US for “completely ignoring” the fact that after the start of ongoing ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine, its military has declared the relevant areas of the Black Sea, adjacent to the coast in certain places, to have a limited status for use by any aircraft.

The “defiant ignorance” of this objective fact, it said, suggests that the American side is constantly trying to create some kind of “provocation to escalate” confrontational approaches.

“You have heard representatives of the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff say that the United States will continue to fly wherever it pleases ‘in accordance with international law’. But, if one adheres to this logic, then the space around the United States has the same status as the space over the Black Sea,” warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Both sides have also assured that they are maintaining direct lines of communication “for reasons like this” to minimise the risk of escalation. Nevertheless, the incident could be a turning point in the Ukraine war as it has brought Russia and the US dangerously close to a conflict.