Russia has conferred state awards on the two fighter pilots involved in the downing of a US surveillance drone that crashed into the Black Sea, the Russian Defence Ministry said, while United States officials announced that its spy flights in the region have resumed.
Presenting the awards on Friday to the Su-27 jet fighter pilots, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu lauded their achievement in preventing the drone from flying into an area near Crimea to which Moscow has banned access.
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“The drone flew with its transponders off, violating the boundaries of the area of the temporary airspace usage regime established for the special military operation [and] communicated to all users of international airspace,” Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement, according to The Moscow Times.
Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov said the awards for the pilots were “a clear sign that Russia will keep downing” US drones.
“This decision will receive a strong support from the Russian society that wants the government to toughen its policy,” Markov wrote in a commentary.
Russia’s presentation of the awards comes a day after the US military released a declassified 42-second video clip showing the Russian Su-27 fighter jets intercepting the drone and making close passes while dumping fuel in an apparent bid to damage the drone’s optical and other hi-tech instruments.
The US military said it was forced to ditch the MQ-9 Reaper drone in the Black Sea after one of the Russian jets struck the drone’s propeller while it was flying in international airspace. Russia has denied that its jets caused any physical harm to the US drone, alleging it crashed while making a sharp manoeuvre.
US officials have said the recovery of what remained of the done would be difficult due to deep water in the Black Sea. But Russian state media reported that Russian navy forces have detected the drone’s wreckage some 60km (37 miles) from the Crimean port city of Sevastopol at a depth of 850-900 meters (2,788-2,952 feet), according to The Moscow Times.
Though Moscow and Washington initially traded strong words over the drone incident, the US appeared intent on easing tension by declaring it was unknown whether the Russian pilot had intentionally struck the uncrewed aircraft.
Russian officials also emphasised the need to maintain lines of communication with Washington after the incident, while at the same time harshly denouncing the US for operating surveillance flights on its borders as well as sharing military intelligence with Ukraine that would be used to attack Russian forces.
US officials said on Friday that its surveillance drone flights over the Black Sea had already resumed.
An RQ-4 Global Hawk flew a mission to the region on Friday, two officials told the Reuters news agency, with one adding that it was the first such drone flight since the downing of the drone on Tuesday.