Russian pilots who forced US drone to crash near Ukraine to be honored with state awards
Stars and Stripes March 17, 2023
Two Russian pilots who harassed a U.S. drone over the Black Sea this week and caused it to crash into waters near Ukraine will receive military awards for their actions, a top Russian official said Friday.
Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said the pilots will be decorated with state awards for refusing to allow a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone on Tuesday to “violate the airspace restricted for use during the special military operation” in Ukraine. Special military operation is the phrase that the Russian government uses to describe its war in Ukraine, which was a former Soviet Union republic before the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s.
The Pentagon has rejected Moscow’s claims. U.S defense officials have said the drone was flying through international airspace on a regular surveillance mission when a pair of Russian Su-27 fighter jets intercepted it.
Shoigu did not name the pilots who were involved in the incident or specify exactly what award they will receive. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he’s spoken to Shoigu by phone and promised American aircraft will continue to fly anywhere that’s allowed by international law.
U.S. officials said the Russian jets initially dumped fuel on the drone. Almost an hour later, one of the pilots clipped the drone’s rear propeller with his aircraft, damaging it enough that U.S. Air Force officials had to let it crash into the Black Sea. The Pentagon said Thursday that U.S. defense officials aren’t certain whether the pilot wanted to hit the drone.
“But it clearly demonstrates either poor airmanship or reckless behavior because, just from an airman standpoint, why would you hit another aircraft with your aircraft in the sky?” Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, asked reporters on Thursday at the Pentagon.
The top two U.S. military leaders on Wednesday also condemned the Russian intercept. Austin called it “reckless” and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was “unsafe” and “unprofessional.”
The Pentagon officials said they took unspecified measures to keep another country such as Russia from mining information from the downed drone. Milley said the unmanned aircraft is likely at the bottom of the Black Sea in many pieces.
CNN reported on Friday that another U.S. military drone has been detected over the Black Sea – this one identified as an RQ-4 Global Hawk. The report cited data from the website flightradar24.com that indicated the drone flew in international airspace southeast of Crimea and west of the Russian city of Sochi. The RQ-4 is larger than the MQ-9 Reaper.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is now in its second year and Russian President Vladimir Putin has given little indication that it will end soon. The conflict has killed or injured tens of thousands of troops and civilians, according to U.N. estimates, and Russian missiles have regularly targeted civilian infrastructure such as apartment buildings.
Also on Friday, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin for illegally moving hundreds of Ukrainian children from occupied areas in Ukraine for adoption in Russia. It also issued a warrant for Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, the Kremlin’s commissioner for children's rights, on similar accusations.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that President Putin and Ms. Lvova-Belova bear criminal responsibility,” ICC Prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan said, noting he personally witnessed evidence of abductions during a recent visit to Ukraine. “We must ensure that those responsible … are held accountable and that children are returned to their families and communities. We cannot allow children to be treated as if they are the spoils of war.”