Russia will reward pilots involved in drone incident in the US

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MOSCOW — Russian fighter pilots involved in an incident with an American drone that resulted in its crash will receive state awards, the Defense Ministry announced on Friday. The move appears to signal Moscow’s intention to take a more aggressive stance towards future US surveillance flights.

The US military said it ditched the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in the Black Sea on Tuesday after a pair of Russian warplanes dumped fuel on the surveillance drone and then one struck its propeller as it flew in airspace. international. Moscow has denied that its fighter jets hit the drone, claiming it crashed while performing a sharp maneuver. It said its warplanes reacted to a violation of a no-fly zone that Russia has set up in the area near Crimea amid fighting in Ukraine.

On Friday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu praised the pilots for preventing the drone from flying into the area that Moscow has banned for flights. The Defense Ministry said the ban was “in line with international standards.”

The Moscow announcement comes a day after the US military released a declassified 42-second color video showing a Russian Su-27 fighter jet approaching the rear of the US drone and releasing fuel in its wake in what appeared to be the goal of blinding the drone’s optical instruments. to get him out of the area.

On a second approach, the same or another Russian Su-27 plane that had been tailing the MQ-9 struck the drone’s propeller and damaged a blade, according to the US military, which said it then threw the plane into the sea. The video excerpt does not show the collision, although it does show the damage to the propeller.

Top US and Russian defense and military leaders spoke on Wednesday about the destruction of the drone, underscoring the seriousness of the event. Calls between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, Russian Chief of Staff They were the first since October.

While calling out Russia for “reckless” action, the White House also tried to avoid exacerbating tensions. US officials stressed that they have not been able to determine whether the Russian pilot intentionally hit the US drone and noted that lines of communication with Moscow remain open.

Russian officials also stressed the need to maintain lines of communication, but harshly denounced the US action as arrogant disregard for Moscow’s no-fly zone.

“This is a clear signal that Russia will continue to shoot down American drones,” wrote pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov in a comment on the award announcement. “This decision will receive strong support from Russian society, which wants the government to toughen its policy.”

Moscow has repeatedly raised concerns about US intelligence flights near Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 amid strong international condemnation. The Kremlin has accused the US and its allies of effectively becoming involved in the conflict by providing weapons and sharing intelligence with kyiv.

Some Russian officials charged that the US surveillance flights helped gather information that allowed Ukraine to attack Russian targets.

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