After drone clash, is direct Russia-US confrontation more likely?
This week’s clash upped the ante but experts say a larger conflict is off the table.
Kyiv, Ukraine – It looked like a deliberate manoeuvre by a skilled pilot that led to the first direct military clash between the United States and Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine.
Two Russian fighter jets approached a US drone flying in the cloudless, azure sky over international waters in the Black Sea on Tuesday morning.
One of the Russian Su-27s released a stream of jet fuel on the MQ-9 Reaper drone, causing its cameras to shut off.
Then the Su-27 hit the Reaper’s propeller, causing it to tumble into the sea, the Pentagon said.
It said the Reaper was a “reconnaissance drone” and carried no arms, although the unmanned aircraft with a wingspan of 26 metres (85 feet) was designed as a “hunter-killer” armed with laser-guided bombs and missiles.
It was the most significant direct clash between superpowers since the Ukraine war began last February.
Tuesday’s incident took place off the coast of Crimea, the jewel in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crown that had been annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Moscow has repeatedly stressed that it is concerned about Crimea’s safety – some Western observers would say Russia is rather paranoid – and the need for a “land bridge” between Russia and the Black Sea peninsula was one of the main reasons the Kremlin started the war.
The US released a video filmed by the drone that was forced to crash in the Black Sea after it was intercepted by two Russian fighter jets in international airspace ⤵️
🔗: https://t.co/H2hj0LkiIi pic.twitter.com/E4Su5r2eDn
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) March 16, 2023
Moscow said it had warned the US not to enter the zone of what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Russia’s defence Ministry stated that the Su-27 jets scrambled the drone as it was flying towards the Russian border and had its transponder off.
It warned that the incident may lead to an “escalation” in the Black Sea basin.
“Flights of US strategic unmanned vehicles near the coast of Crimea are of a provocative character creating a pretext for the escalation in the Black Sea zone,” it said in a statement.
So, has the Reaper’s downing become a casus belli, and is there a risk of a direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia?
Experts say it’s unlikely.
Russians are “morbidly obsessed with responses”, according to Ukraine’s top military analyst.
The drone’s downing was retaliation for the damage inflicted upon a key Russian aircraft in late February, says Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
A drone attack in an airfield in pro-Russian Belarus north of the Ukrainian border targeted one of only nine B-50 planes that can identify the locations of Ukrainian air defence units.
Belarusian “guerrilla fighters” claimed responsibility for the attack, and the damaged plane was taken back to Russia.
Washington should respond to the drone’s downing with “balanced” force, Romanenko said.
“There has to be punishment, financial and demonstrative,” he told Al Jazeera.
The US should use “balanced force that will not prompt a world war and the use of nuclear weapons. That’s what Russians will understand,” he said.
He said that a larger conflict is off the table because NATO’s main goal in helping Ukraine is “not to escalate” the continuing war.
The West has spent tens of billions on military aid to Ukraine but has been extremely careful about not fanning the flames of Europe’s bloodiest armed conflict since WWII.
Another expert agrees that the downing was Russia’s revenge – but for another demonstrative incident.
On Saturday, a US B-52 warplane flew over the Baltic and approached a Russian island near the Gulf of Finland.
“This is some kind of a warning,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, an historian with Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera.
“But the effect will be reverse – in three months, at the latest, Western fighter jets will be in Ukraine, and ‘retired [Western] volunteers’ will pilot them,” he said.
The drone incident is counterproductive to the Kremlin because it will boost the faltering public support for Ukraine in the United States, another observer said.
“The drone’s downing has led to an even larger consolidation of US political elites on Russia,” Pavel Luzin, a defence analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera. “That’s the main result so far,” he said.
Even though US President Joe Biden said that Washington would back Ukraine for “as long as it takes” to triumph over Russia, polls show that Americans are less supportive of helping Kyiv with arms.
Forty-eight percent of Americans said they favour military aid to Ukraine, and 29 percent are opposed to it, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released in mid-February.
In May 2022, 60 percent of Americans supported the aid, it said.
Meanwhile, leading Republican presidential candidates, former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have said that backing Ukraine contradicts US strategic interests.
Blaming the US
To Moscow, the collision seemed like a pretext to equal Russia and the US as “great powers”.
“Any incidents that provoke a confrontation of two great powers, two of the world’s largest nuclear powers, always carry very serious risks. The US can’t but understand it,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised remarks.
A Ukrainian military analyst said the drone incident was Moscow’s desperate attempt to start direct talks with the US as the Kremlin tries to find a way out of the quagmire.
Moscow’s initial goals of seizing the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and replacing President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government with pro-Kremlin puppets failed.
“From the Russian side, it looks like an ‘information attack,’ [an attempt] to start negotiations with the Americans,” retired Ukrainian colonel Roman Svitan told the Nastoyashchee Vremya website.
Even though the Pentagon said it erased the drone’s memory, Russia might also try to fish the drone’s debris out and study it.
“We will definitely look into it,” Nikolai Patrushev, a longtime ally of Putin and the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said in televised remarks.