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Russia is handing out awards to pilots involved in crash of U.S. spy drone

Youths taking part in celebration of anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea
Youths take part Friday in a celebration in Yalta, in Crimea, marking the ninth anniversary of Russia’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.
(Associated Press)
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Russian fighter pilots involved in an encounter with a U.S. drone that resulted in its crash will be given state awards, the Defense Ministry announced Friday. The move appears to signal Moscow’s intention to adopt a more aggressive stance toward future U.S. surveillance flights.

The U.S. 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 maneuver. It said that its warplanes reacted to a violation of a no-flight zone Russia has established in the area near Crimea amid the war in Ukraine.

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On Friday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu lauded 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 norms.”

Moscow’s announcement comes a day after the U.S. military released a declassified 42-second color video showing a Russian Su-27 fighter jet approaching the back of the U.S. drone and releasing fuel as it passes in what appeared to be a move 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 U.S. military. The military said it then ditched the aircraft in the sea. The video excerpt does not show the collision, although it does show the fuel dump and the damaged propeller.

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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 Shoigu and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley, were the first since October.

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

Russian officials also emphasized the need to maintain lines of communication, but they harshly denounced the U.S. action as showing arrogant disregard of Moscow’s no-flight zone.

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“This is a clear sign that Russia will keep downing the American drones,” pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov wrote in a commentary on the award announcement. “This decision will receive a strong support from the Russian society that wants the government to toughen its policy.”

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Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about U.S. intelligence flights close to Crimea, which Russia illegally seized from Ukraine in 2014 amid strong international condemnation. The Kremlin has accused the U.S. and its allies of effectively becoming engaged in the conflict by providing weapons and sharing intelligence with Kyiv.

Some Russian officials say that U.S. surveillance flights helped gather intelligence that allowed Ukraine to strike Russian targets.

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