UK News

Russian downing of US drone marks escalation of confrontation near war zone

On any given day around Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, Russian and Nato aircraft and naval vessels, manned and unmanned, buzz around in close proximity, a constant recipe for a superpower crisis along the edges of a war.

The stakes are raised by the fact that both sides have thousands of nuclear warheads as a weapon of last resort, and the risks are raised considerably by reckless behaviour.

The Russian defence ministry denied any contact between one of their Su-27 fighters and a US MQ-9 Reaper drone which crashed into the Black Sea on Tuesday, insisting the drone went down of its own accord. But the US allegations of dangerous flying and even dumping fuel on the Reaper to disrupt it are detailed – and the Russians have a long record of aggressive behaviour.

A 2021 Rand Corporation study analysing dozens of close-shave incidents concluded it was a matter of policy, which Rand dubbed “coercive signalling”.

“Moscow appears to be using coercive signals to send targeted messages regarding activities that it finds problematic,” the report said.

“Sometimes the coercive signal is something like this: the plane will come up to interrogate the target, shadow at a distance, with wings clean (no missiles) but increasingly with wings dirty (with missiles) as our bilateral relations have deteriorated, and it will leave,” Dara Massicot, one of the report’s authors, said on Twitter in the wake of the drone incident.

“Sometimes, usually after other methods were used, Russian signalling would shift to something unsafe and unprofessional to compel a change.”

The change they are trying to compel in this case is to keep US aircraft and boats away from the fringes of the Ukraine war, where Russia’s invasion remains stalled and hugely costly, and Ukrainian forces are benefiting from US intelligence support.


There have been a string of instances of close encounters since Russia’s initial invasion in 2014. In 2017, a Su-27 flew dangerously close to a RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance plane. The next year, a Russian warplane flew across the nose of a US EP-3 spy plane, and in 2020, a Su-27 flew directly in front of a US B-52 bomber.

Tuesday’s incident is more serious because it led to a collision and a crash landing in the sea. It was quite possibly an error. The US European Command pointed to incompetence on the part of the Russian pilot. But Massicot said that in this case “a deliberate bump cannot be ruled out yet”.

The collision cost the US a machine that cost up to $32m and triggered a race to get to the wreckage in the Black Sea. If the Russians get there first, it will be an intelligence boon, allowing their experts to pore over its innards at leisure.

As the commandant of the US Marine Corps, Gen David Berger, said, such scenarios such as the downing of this drone are some of the US military’s greatest worries because of the unpredictability of the chain of events they could trigger in their wake.

Berger said it was also a concern in the Pacific. In fact, the last time a US warplane was involved in such a collision, it was off the Chinese coast in April 2001, when a US EP-3 plane was struck by a Chinese interceptor jet on its third close pass. The Chinese plane crashed into the sea and the US spy plane had to make a forced landing on China’s Hainan Island, triggering a diplomatic crisis.

Downing an expensive drone over the Black Sea is one thing, but destroying a crewed aircraft and killing pilots or forcing a landing on hostile territory in the middle of the war would lead to a far more volatile situation, with pressure on other sides to act tough.

There are open military lines of communication and longstanding conflict-deescalation mechanisms in place to stop scenarios getting out of hand, but every time something like this happens, the world uses up a little bit more of its luck.


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