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US European Command released footage of the March 14 encounter between a US surveillance drone and the Russian fighter jets as it played out over the Black Sea. (US European Command)

US military releases footage of Russian fighter jet forcing down American drone over Black Sea

March 16, 2023

    (CNN) — US European Command released footage of the Tuesday encounter between a US surveillance drone and the Russian fighter jets as it played out over the Black Sea.

The newly declassified video depicts critical moments in the mid-air encounter, which the Pentagon said lasted between 30 and 40 minutes.

The video shows the camera of the MQ-9 Reaper drone pointed backward toward its tail and the drone’s propeller, which is mounted on the rear, spinning. Then, a Russian Sukhoi SU-27 fighter jet is shown approaching. As it draws closer, the Russian fighter jet dumps fuel as it intercepts the US drone.

US Air Force MQ-9 camera footage: Russian Su-27 Black Sea intercept shows a bent propeller on the drone. (US European Command)

In another portion of the footage, the Russian jet makes another pass. As it approaches, it again dumps fuel. The video from the drone is then disrupted as the Russian fighter jet collides with the MQ-9 Reaper, damaging the propeller and ultimately forcing the US to bring down the drone in the Black Sea. Russia has denied that a collision occurred.

When the camera comes back online in the footage, the view is again pointed backward, and the propeller is shown damaged from the collision. With the propeller damaged, the drone operators effectively flew the aircraft as a glider as it descended over the Black Sea, bringing it down in international waters southwest of Crimea. On its way down, two US officials told CNN the operators remotely wiped the drone’s sensitive software, mitigating the risk of secret materials falling into enemy hands before it crashed into the water.

The downing of the drone marked the first time Russian and US military aircraft have come into direct physical contact since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine.

Despite the release of the dramatic footage, and back and forth over who is to blame, the Biden administration has not said it will take action against Russia over the downing of the drone, perhaps indicating a desire to not further escalate tensions after the Kremlin said Wednesday that relations between Moscow and Washington are at their “lowest point.”

A senior Biden administration official said the footage “absolutely confirms” that there was a physical collision and dumping of fuel, but it does not confirm the pilot’s intent.

On Wednesday two US officials familiar with the intelligence told CNN that senior officials at the Russian Ministry of Defense gave the order for the Russian fighter jets to harass a US drone over the Black Sea this week.

The high-level military officials’ connection to the incident suggests that the fighter jet pilots were not taking rogue action when they interfered with the US drone.

But, at this time there is no indication that the highest of political leaders in Russia — particularly those in the Kremlin, including President Vladimir Putin — knew about the planned aggression in advance, one of the US officials said.

National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby said on “CNN This Morning” Wednesday that the drone had not been recovered and that he was “not sure” the US would be able to recover it.

US European Command released footage of the March 14 encounter between a US surveillance drone and the Russian fighter jets as it played out over the Black Sea. (US European Command)

Moscow had made clear it would attempt to retrieve the wreckage of the drone, and two officials told CNN Wednesday that Russia had reached the MQ-9 crash site in the Black Sea. Kirby would not confirm the reported development, but said the US had “made it impossible for them to be able to glean anything of intelligence value off the remnants of that drone, whatever remnants there might be on the surface of the water.”

The Kremlin has said a decision on whether to retrieve the drone will come from Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

“This is the prerogative of the military. If they believe that it is necessary for our interests and our security in the Black Sea, they will do it,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Thursday.

Peskov said he did not know what the ministry has decided.

Moscow and Washington have been in contact through military and diplomatic channels following the incident.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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