The US military has released a recently declassified video that it says shows a Russian fighter jet harassing and colliding with a US drone over the Black Sea.
The footage, released Thursday morning by US European Command and filmed from the drone’s onboard camera, shows a Russian Su-27 jet performing what the US calls an «unsafe/unprofessional intercept.» of a US Air Force MQ-9 earlier this week.
Russia has denied that its planes came into contact with the drone and has said the United States is to blame, warning Washington to stop «hostile» surveillance flights near its borders to help Ukraine.
The incident is the first known direct confrontation between the two superpowers since Moscow invaded its neighbor last year, and comes at a time of rising tensions over Western support for kyiv.
While the 43-second video has been edited and not verified by NBC News, the US military said it shows events in sequential order.
The Russian plane can be seen approaching the drone, before it twice releases a long plume of what appears to be fuel into the air as it passes. Then, 29 seconds into the video, the plane can be seen to appear to collide with the MQ-9 Reaper drone and the video feed is lost. When power is restored, one of the drone’s propellers is visibly damaged.
Three US officials familiar with the relevant intelligence told NBC News that the highest levels of power within the Kremlin approved the aggressive actions of the Russian warplanes in the encounter.
It was «the intention of the Russian leadership to be aggressive in the interception,» one of the officials said, though another said he had received no indication that approval would go as far as President Vladimir Putin.
Officials said Wednesday that judging from the video, the Russian plane cutting off the drone’s propeller, which the United States says occurred and Russia denies, was likely unintentional and likely the result of pilot error.
Three defense officials and a Biden administration official also said the Russians have already reached the area where the MQ-9 Reaper crashed. The Russians are actively searching for the debris with ships and planes, but the United States has not seen any indication that they have been able to recover it, authorities said. An official said much of the debris sank into the Black Sea.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference Wednesday that there probably isn’t much debris to recover, noting that the part of the Black Sea where the drone landed is up to 5,000 feet. deep.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in an interview with NBC News that the Russians were deliberately trying to get close to the drone.
«What we don’t know is how intentional the collision with the drone was,» Kirby said. «This may have just been a reckless and incompetent piece of aviation on the part of the pilot.»
The United States summoned Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov to the State Department over the incident to convey strong objections to the incident.
courtney kube and Carol E. read contributed.