KYIV, Ukraine - The Pentagon on Thursday released video of what it said was a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a U.S. Air Force surveillance drone before the warplane clipped the drone’s propeller in international airspace, leading to its crash in the Black Sea and raising tensions between Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine.
Poland, meanwhile, said it's giving Ukraine a dozen MiG-29 fighter jets, becoming the first NATO member to fulfill Kyiv's increasingly urgent requests for warplanes.
The U.S. military's declassified 42-second color footage shows a Russian Su-27 approaching the back of the MQ-9 Reaper drone and releasing fuel as it passes, the Pentagon said. Dumping the fuel 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 fighter that had been shadowing the MQ-9 struck the drone’s propeller, damaging a blade, according to the U.S. military, which said it then ditched the unmanned aircraft in the sea.
The video excerpt released by the Pentagon does not show events before or after the apparent fuel-dumping confrontation and does not show the Russian warplane striking the drone.
A screengrab taken from video released on March 16, 2023, shows a Russian Su-27 approaching the back of the MQ-9 drone and beginning to release fuel as it passes over the Black Sea, according to the Pentagon. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defense)
Russia said its fighters didn’t strike the drone and claimed the unmanned aerial vehicle went down after making a sharp maneuver.
Asked Thursday if Russia would try to recover the drone debris, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the decision was up to the military. "If they consider it necessary to do so in the Black Sea for the benefit of our interests and our security, they will do it," he said. Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said Wednesday that an attempt would be made.
U.S. officials have expressed confidence that nothing of military value would remain from the drone even if Russia managed to retrieve the wreckage. They left open the possibility of trying to recover portions of the downed $32 million aircraft, which they said crashed into waters that were 4,000 to 5,000 feet (1,200 to 1,500 meters) deep, although the U.S. does not have any ships in the area.
Russia and NATO member countries routinely intercept each other’s warplanes, but the drone incident marked the first time since the Cold War that a U.S. aircraft went down during such a confrontation, raising concerns it could bring the United States and Russia closer to a direct conflict.
Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about U.S. intelligence flights near the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed.
The top U.S. and Russian defense and military leaders spoke Wednesday about the destruction of the drone, underscoring the event's seriousness.
The calls between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, as well as between Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russian General Staff, were the first since October.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in its report of the call with Austin that Shoigu accused the U.S. of provoking the incident by ignoring flight restrictions the Kremlin had imposed because of its military operations in Ukraine.
The Kremlin argues that by providing weapons to Ukraine and sharing intelligence information with Kyiv, the U.S. and its allies have effectively become engaged in the war, now in its 13th month.
Such U.S. actions "are fraught with escalation of the situation in the Black Sea area," the Defense Ministry said, warning that Moscow "will respond in kind to all provocations."
The MQ-9, which has a 66-foot (20-meter) wingspan, includes a ground control station and satellite equipment. It is capable of carrying munitions, but Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, would not say whether the ditched drone had been armed.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said Warsaw would give Ukraine four Soviet-made MiG-29s "within the next few days" and that the rest needed servicing and would be supplied later. The Polish word he used to describe the total number of warplanes can mean between 11 and 19.
"They are in the last years of their functioning but they are in good working condition," Duda added. He did not say whether other countries would follow suit, although Slovakia has said it would send Ukraine its disused MiGs.
On Wednesday, Polish government spokesman Piotr Mueller said some other countries with MiGs also had pledged them to Kyiv, but he did not identify them.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded for Western supporters to share fighter jets, NATO allies have expressed hesitancy.
Before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine had several dozen MiG-29s it inherited in the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, but it’s unclear how many of them remain in service after more than a year of fighting.
The debate over whether to provide non-NATO member Ukraine with fighter jets was initiated over a year ago, but the military alliance has been wary of anything that might escalate the war.
Duda said Poland’s air force would replace the planes it gives to Ukraine with South Korea-made FA-50 fighters and American-made F-35s.
Poland also was the first NATO nation to give Ukraine German-made Leopard 2 tanks last month.
A crucial ally of Kyiv, Poland also hosts thousands of U.S. troops and is taking in more people fleeing the war in the neighboring country than any other nation, amid the largest European refugee crisis in decades.
It has suffered invasions and occupations by Russia for centuries and still fears Russia despite being a member of NATO.
Authorities in Warsaw also said Thursday the security services have detained members of a Russian espionage ring, alleging they were preparing acts of sabotage in Poland and had been monitoring railroad routes used to transport weapons into Ukraine.
Hazell contributed from Washington.