MS Risk Blog

The U.S. drone collision with Russian fighter jets over the Black Sea has led to an increase in tensions between the two powers and America’s response has opened an opportunity for Russia to become more emboldened

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The collision between the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone and the two Russian Su-27 fighter jets on 14 March over the Black Sea has led to a significant increase in tension between the two countries. This is the first time the countries have directly come into contact since the Ukraine war began in February 2022. Neither country has decided to take action against the other for the incident, however Russia completely blames the U.S. for the incident claiming that the drone was within Russian temporary airspace. The Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu has since released a statement that Russia will be considerably more hostile towards such actions in the future. It can be inferred from the statement that Russia’s retaliation should an incident like this happen again will be severe. In response to the collision and Russia’s statement the U.S. have opted to fly other surveillance drones farther south over the Black Sea to avoid further souring of relations and avoid an incident that could lead to direct conflict between the two nations. This response has been met with criticism and concerns that Russia may become emboldened in the future as a result. Russia is finding ways to avoid the current sanctions imposed on them by the U.S. The Russia’s response to the collision as well as the ineffectiveness of U.S. sanction may pressure them in the future into taking direct action.

U.S.-Russia tensions have persisted since the Cold War over the second half of the twentieth century. The Ukraine War is only the latest of a disagreement between the two nations. However, whilst the U.S. has provided support to Ukraine in terms of training of personnel and financial aid, they have not moved to further engage in the conflict. Following the end of the Cold War the U.S. were open to the possibility of co-operation with Russia. The last time the two leaders of the nation’s having met been in 2021 at Villa La Grange in Geneva. However, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the U.S. have revoked their views of potential co-operation with the superpower and are now focused on displacing the nation as one of the great world powers.

The collision is the first time the two parties have directly encountered each other since the Ukraine war began two years ago. The U.S. Department of Defence says the Su-27s acted recklessly and continually dumped fuel on the drone whereas the Kremlin has continually denied involvement in the incident. The debate between the two nations stems primarily on whether the drone was acting within international airspace or otherwise. Russia claims the drone was operating in airspace that was too close to Crimea to be considered ‘international’. Russia cited threats of U.S. intelligence gathering using the spy drone to be used to help the Ukrainian military in the war. There has been no compromise in agreement over the events so far.

On 16 March, two days after the collision, the Pentagon released a video showing the events of the collision. In the video it is shown that a Su-7 makes two passes in front of the drone, spraying fuel in front of it. This is a harassment tactic the US experts say they have not seen before. Upon the second pass the image becomes pixelated, indicating a collision and upon camera recovery a bent propeller wing can be seen, damage serious enough for the US Air Force to force the drone down. The video cannot confirm the pilots intent however the video does appear to confirm that the collision was not an accident, giving credibility to the U.S. accusations of Russia. Since the videos release Russia continues to deny involvement in the incident whilst also placing blame on the U.S. Following the release of the video, Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu went on to present the two Su-27 pilots awards for preventing the drone from violating temporary Russia airspace on 17 March. Despite attempts to prevent relations between the two nations declining from the U.S. defence minister Lloyd Austin via talking to Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, they appear to have failed. The statement he received from Shoigu said that Russia “will in future react in due proportion.” This statement highly suggests that Russia has become considerably more hostile and wary of U.S. intentions than they once were.

U.S. response appears to exercise due caution in their future actions. Since the collision, U.S. officials have decided to move the drones further South to avoid another incident such as this and further conflict. This will limit U.S. intelligence gathering from the drones. U.S. response has not been met with much praise. Despite video evidence displaying Russia as the aggressors, the U.S. have appeared to quell in response to the statement issued by Shoigu to Austin. This response will likely encourage Russia to become emboldened in the future. Washington continues to insist it wishes to avoid direct conflict with Russia. Therefore, it appears they will continue to operate using their current policy of placing sanctions and export control over Russia. Russia has already been subject to heavy sanctions and export controls from the U.S. government over the past two years. They have grown closer to other countries sanctioned by the U.S., such as China and Iran, to avoid the effects of sanctions. Shortly after the collision, President Xi Jinping visiting Russia on 20 March and praising Putin’s “strong leadership” in the Ukraine war. This visit was planned before the drone collision so is not a response to the collision itself. China has also recently helped repair diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is the possibility therefore that the nations could be forming an unofficial economic alliance. Should they succeed in forming this economic block, the U.S. will be unable to effectively impose sanctions on Russia. Therefore, they may have to push for direct involvement in the Ukraine war to prevent its extended continuation or Russian victory.