Russia to award pilots involved in US drone incident
Youth take part in an action to mark the ninth anniversary of Crimea annexation from Ukraine with a banner reading: "Russia doesn't start wars, it ends them" accompanied with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Yalta, Crimea, Friday, March 17, 2023. (AP Photo)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian fighter pilots involved in an incident with a US drone that resulted in its crash will be given state awards, the Defence Ministry announced Friday. The move appears to signal Moscow's intention to adopt a more aggressive stance toward 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 fighter jets dumped fuel on the surveillance drone and then one of them struck its propeller while it was flying in international airspace. Moscow has denied that its warplanes hit the drone, alleging that it crashed while making a sharp manoeuvre. It said that its aircraft reacted to a violation of a no-flight zone Russia has established in the area near Crimea amid the fighting in Ukraine.

On Friday, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu lauded the pilots for preventing the drone from flying into the area that Moscow has banned for flights. The Defence Ministry emphasised that the ban was “in line with international norms.”

Moscow's announcement comes a day after the US military released a declassified 42-second colour footage showing a Russian Su-27 fighter jet approaching the back of the US drone and releasing fuel as it passes in what appeared to be aimed at blinding the drone’s optical instruments to drive it from the area.

On a second approach, either the same jet or another Russian Su-27 that had been shadowing the MQ-9 struck the drone’s propeller, damaging a blade, according to the US military, which said it then ditched the aircraft in the sea. The video excerpt does not show the collision, although it does show the damage to the propeller.

The top US and Russian defence and military leaders spoke Wednesday about the destruction of the drone in the first calls between them since October, underscoring the event’s seriousness.

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

Russian officials also emphasised the need to maintain lines of communication, but they harshly denounced the US action as arrogant disregard of Moscow's no-flight zone.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia's Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, said Friday that, “simply put, the Americans have become far too gross, and we shouldn't be too polite with them." He added on a more cautious note that “of course, contacts between the military are necessary.”

Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov pointed at the award for the pilots who buzzed the US drone as "a clear sign that Russia will keep downing the American drones.”

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