The U.S. military has released newly declassified video it says shows a Russian fighter jet harassing and colliding with an American drone over the Black Sea.
The video, released Thursday morning by the U.S. European Command and filmed from the drone's onboard camera, shows a Russian Su-27 jet conducting what Washington calls an "unsafe/unprofessional intercept of a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 in international airspace" earlier this week.
U.S. officials earlier told NBC News that the Kremlin leadership had approved the aggressive actions of two Russian jets involved in the incident in an apparent effort to throw the drone off course or disable its surveillance capabilities.
Russia has denied its planes came “into contact” with the drone and said the United States was to blame, warning Washington to cease "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 mounting tensions over Western support for Kyiv.
While the 43-second video has been edited for length and not verified by NBC News, the U.S. military said it shows the events in sequential order.
One of the Russian jets can be seen approaching the drone, before it twice releases a long plume of what appears to be fuel into the air while passing. Then at 29 seconds into the video, the jet can be seen appearing to collide with the MQ-9 Reaper drone and the video feed is lost. When the feed is re-established, one of the drone's propellers has been visibly damaged.
Three U.S. officials familiar with the relevant intelligence said that the highest levels of power within the Kremlin approved the Russian fighter jets' aggressive actions in the encounter.
It was the “Russian leadership’s intention to be aggressive in the intercept,” said one of the officials, although another said he had not received indications that the signoff went all the way up to President Vladimir Putin.
The officials said Wednesday that judging from the video, the Russian jet clipping the propeller of the drone — which the U.S. says occurred and Russia denies — was likely not intentional and likely the result of pilot error.
Three defense officials and one Biden administration official also said Russia has already reached the area where the MQ-9 Reaper crashed. Russia is actively looking for the debris with ships and aircraft, but the U.S. hasn’t seen any indication that it has been able to recover any of the remnants, officials said. One official said much of the debris sank into the Black Sea.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference Wednesday that there’s probably not a lot of debris to recover, and noted that the part of the Black Sea where the drone landed is as much as 5,000 feet deep.
John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in an interview that the Russian jets were deliberately trying to get close to the drone.
“What we don’t know is how intentional the collision with the drone was,” he said. “It is possible that this was just a reckless, incompetent piece of aviation by the pilot.”
The U.S. summoned Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov to the State Department to convey strong objections to the incident.