Moscow told Washington on Wednesday to keep well away from its air space after a U.S. drone intercepted by Russian jets crashed into the Black Sea – the first known direct confrontation between the superpowers since Russia invaded Ukraine.
While battles between Ukrainian troops and Russian forces raged on in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin and Washington traded blame for Tuesday’s incident, which took place in international air space near territory Russia claims to have annexed from Ukraine.
“The Americans keep saying they’re not taking part in military operations. This is the latest confirmation that they are directly participating in these activities – in the war,” Kremlin Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking on Wednesday at a news conference during an official visit to Ethiopia, described the incident as “reckless” and “unsafe”.
He declined to speak on the intent or motivation behind it.
But Washington also appeared to want to calm matters down. State Department spokesperson Ned Price, speaking to MSNBC, said the incident was likely to have been an unintentional act by Russia.
The U.S. military said two Russian Su-27 fighter planes had approached one of its MQ-9 Reaper drones on a reconnaissance mission over international waters. The fighters harassed the drone and sprayed fuel on it before one clipped the drone’s propeller, causing it to crash into the sea.
White House spokesman John Kirby said U.S. officials had told Russia’s ambassador Anatoly Antonov that Moscow must be more careful: “The message was: ‘Don’t do this again’.”
According to Russia’s account, there was no collision. The drone crashed after making “sharp manoeuvres”, having “deliberately and provocatively” flown close to Russian air space. Moscow had scrambled its fighters to identify it.
“The unacceptable activity of the U.S. military in the close proximity to our borders is a cause for concern,” Ambassador Antonov said in a statement. He accused Washington of using drones to collect intelligence which the Kyiv government could use against Russia.
He told Washington: “Stop making sorties near the Russian borders.”
Kyiv, for its part, said the incident showed Moscow was willing to expand the conflict zone to draw in other countries. Russia was raising the stakes as it faced “conditions of a strategic defeat” in Ukraine, said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council.
The United States has supported Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in military aid but says its troops have not become directly engaged in the war, which Moscow portrays as a conflict against the combined might of the West.
On the ground in Ukraine, Russia kept up its push to capture the small eastern city of Bakhmut and secure its first substantial victory in more than half a year.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his military top brass had advised reinforcing Bakhmut.
Kyiv had appeared last month to be preparing to pull out of the city but has since decided to defend it, saying it is exhausting Russia’s attacking force there to pave the way for its own counter-attack.
Some Western and Ukrainian military experts have questioned whether it makes sense for Kyiv to hold on there because of its own heavy losses.
But Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said the defence of Bakhmut was important.
“A huge number of (Russian) troops are being killed and as of today, the enemy’s capacity to advance is being reduced,” Malyar said.
The front lines in Ukraine have barely moved for four months despite fighting that has evolved into Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two, described by both sides as a “meat grinder” with battlefields strewn with dead.
Russia’s assaults have largely failed across most of the front line, apart from Bakhmut where it has captured the east of the city and advanced north and south as it tries to encircle it.
Intense fighting has also been under way further north, where Russia is trying to recapture territory it lost to a Ukrainian counteroffensive last year, and further south.
Since recapturing swathes of territory in the second half of 2022, Ukraine has lately kept to the defensive, planning a counteroffensive later this year once muddy ground dries and Western-supplied armoured vehicles and tanks arrive.
Russia invaded its neighbour a year ago, describing Ukraine as a security threat. It claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of Ukrainian territory. Kyiv and the West consider it an unprovoked war to seize land.
Meanwhile, Turkish officials, speaking a day before Finnish President Sauli Niinisto visits the country, said Turkey’s parliament was highly likely to ratify Finland’s bid to join NATO before mid-April.
Finland and Sweden applied last year to join the defence alliance after the Russian invasion – breaking with a long-standing position of neutrality and angering Moscow, which has cited NATO expansion towards its borders as a threat to its own security.
However, the two Nordic countries’ accession bids faced objections from Ankara, which said Stockholm harbours members of terrorist groups, which Sweden denies.
A senior Turkish official told Reuters that Finland’s bid would be approved independently from that of Sweden.
Another official said Finland’s approach to alleged terrorist organisations was in line with Turkey’s sensitivities and that Helsinki had taken steps in that regard.
“It is highly likely that the necessary step for Finland’s NATO membership will be completed before (parliament) closes and the election is held (in May),” the official said.
The United States and other NATO allies hope the two countries become members at a NATO summit due to be held in July in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius.