Moscow was likely trying to send a message by harassing a US drone, but officials say the Russian pilot ran into it because they're bad at flying

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Moscow was likely trying to send a message by harassing a US drone, but officials say the Russian pilot ran into it because they're bad at flying
A Russian Su-27 fighter jet approaches a US military MQ-9 Reaper drone operating above the Black Sea on March 14, 2023.Screengrab/US Air Force video
  • A Russian fighter jet harassed a US military MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea this week.
  • Engagements like these are likely part of what one think tank says are calculated Russian tactics.
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A Russian fighter jet dumped fuel on and then clipped a US military drone operating over the Black Sea this week in what looks like a botched attempt at aggressive messaging. The American aircraft ultimately crashed into the waters below as a damaged Russian plane landed elsewhere.

The incident delivered another blow to the relationship between the two countries, which was already at rock bottom after Russia's invasion of Ukraine over a year ago.

Moscow was likely trying to send a message to Washington by harassing the drone, as this sort of aggressive signaling has been seen repeatedly, according to a think tank analysis on coercive Russian military action, but US officials say the pilot probably struck the aircraft simply because they are bad at flying.

"What happened was an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver on the part of a Russian aircraft, a maneuver that was also tinged with a lack of competence," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said after the incident. He later told MSNBC that the "best assessment" is the collision was probably unintentional.

On Tuesday, two Russian Su-27 fighter jets intercepted a US military MQ-9 Reaper drone that was flying in international airspace above the Black Sea. The two warplanes dumped fuel on and flew in front of the drone several times before one of the jets clipped the Reaper's propeller on a reckless pass just after 7 am local time, forcing the US military to bring the damaged drone down into the water below.

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US Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said the MQ-9 was engaging in routine operations when the incident happened and that the crash caused the "complete loss" of the drone. Moscow deflected blame for the crash on the US, with its ambassador to Washington claiming the drone was moving "deliberately and provocatively" toward Russian territory.

A top White House official said on Wednesday that its unclear whether the US will launch a recovery effort, something it has done with more sensitive military equipment that's been lost. Russia, on the other hand, has said it may try and recover the aircraft.

The US aircraft is resting at a depth of between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, making any recovery operation "very difficult" by any party, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters on Wednesday.

Moscow uses 'coercive signals' to send messages

Tuesday's incident marked the most direct confrontation between Russia and the US since the former attacked Ukraine in February 2022. It is also the latest of many provocative actions by Moscow against NATO militaries around the Black Sea, where intercepts are not uncommon. Russia has carried out aggressive maneuvers and close engagements against Western forces on a number of occasions in recent years.

But Russia has a long history of performing dangerous intercepts as a means of intimidation, a former US Navy pilot and TOPGUN instructor previously told Insider.

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Moscow was likely trying to send a message by harassing a US drone, but officials say the Russian pilot ran into it because they're bad at flying
A composite image showing the rear of a US MQ-9 Reaper drone before and after the US military says a Russian Su-27 fighter jet collided with it. Insider highlighted apparent damage to one propeller blade for emphasis.US European Command/Insider

These close encounters and aggressive maneuvers by Russian aircraft are part of a coordinated messaging campaign by Russia, according to a recent report by the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank based in California. The report consists of empirical research completed in 2020 that analyzes years of Russian military activity like intercepts and other engagements.

"Moscow regularly uses limited military actions — far short of direct aggression but often creating escalatory risks —that have caused concern and consternation in Western capitals," RAND writes in its report.

"Much of the assertive, dangerous, or unsafe Russian activity appears directed at shaping patterns of ongoing US or allied behavior," the report says. "Moscow appears to be using coercive signals to send targeted compellent messages regarding activities that it finds problematic," and "these compellent signals are often linked to particular US and allied activities."

In other words, RAND assesses that these Russian behaviors are strategic and intentional.

Moscow was likely trying to send a message by harassing a US drone, but officials say the Russian pilot ran into it because they're bad at flying
MQ-9 ReaperUS Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class William Rio Rosado

Milley, the top US general, said Wednesday there's "no question" that the Russian harassment preceding the crash was intentional. Although the intentions behind the actual physical contact between the jet and drone, he noted, remains more of a mystery.

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While this harassment appears to be a calculated part of a Russian playbook, several top US officials and the military blamed the pilot's incompetence for crashing into the drone.

One official said the Su-27 was out of control and flying like "it was amateur hour," adding that the incident did not portray the skillset of a professional pilot. US European Command (EUCOM) wrote that the engagement demonstrated a "a lack of competence," while also being unprofessional, unsafe, reckless, and "environmentally unsound."

Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder echoed what EUCOM and State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, arguing in that the pilots didn't show any competence during the intercept.

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