Handout/US Defense Department European C
MOSCOW — Russia’s Defense Ministry has awarded state honors to the pilots of two fighter jets the U.S. has accused of forcing down an American Reaper drone over the Black Sea earlier this week — the latest twist in an incident that has sparked fears of direct military hostilities between the nuclear superpowers.
In a statement, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu presented state awards to the Su-27 pilots saying they had “prevented” the American drone “intruder” from “violating” airspace restrictions that Russia unilaterally put in place during the conflict in Ukraine.
The Ministry statement again repeated Russian assertions that the U.S. surveillance plane was flying with its transponders off and had crashed into the water of its own accord due to sudden sharp maneuvers.
“The Russian aircraft did not use onboard weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle and returned safely to their home airfield,” said the Ministry.
The statement came one day after the Pentagon released video footage that showed Russian warplanes twice spraying what appears to be fuel onto the drone. The video feed cuts out, and a final clip shows a damaged propeller blade on the drone.
The U.S. says its plane was flying a routine pattern in international airspace over the Black Sea.
NPR has previously reported that U.S. officials believe that the harassment of the downed U.S. drone by Russian fighter jets was approved by senior Russian officials — even as U.S. officials expressed uncertainty whether the pilot intentionally hit the drone or made a mistake.
Senior Kremlin officials say crews are now working to recover the surveillance aircraft — arguing Washington was using it to help its allies in Kyiv identify Russian targets amid the war in Ukraine.
State media have run unconfirmed reports that Russian recovery crews have already detected the drone’s location — just over 35 miles from the Crimean port city of Sevastopol in waters some 3,000 feet deep.
Even as the White House has insisted the U.S. will continue with “routine” reconnaissance missions in international airspace, Russia has warned it sees such flights as “provocations” that would warrant a similar Russian response.