Three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence said the highest levels of the Kremlin approved the aggressive actions of Russian military fighter jets against a U.S. military drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday.
The Russian jets dropped jet fuel on the MQ-9 Reaper, an unprecedented action, and two of the officials said the intelligence suggests the intent seemed to be to throw the drone off course or disable its surveillance capabilities.
It was “Russian leadership’s intention to be aggressive in the intercept,” said one of the officials.
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One official said he had not gotten indications that the signoff went all the way up to Putin. Other officials declined to provide specifics beyond “highest levels.”
The Russian jet actually clipping the propeller of the drone — which the U.S. says occurred and Russia denies — was likely not intentional, said the officials, who believe it was pilot error, based on U.S. video of the incident.
Three defense officials and one Biden administration official also said the Russians have already reached the area where the MQ-9 Reaper crashed. The Russians are actively looking for the debris with ships and aircraft, but the U.S. hasn’t seen any indication that they’ve been able to recover any of it, officials said. One official said much of the debris sank into the Black Sea.
The U.S. is unlikely to try to recover the remnants of the crashed drone, according to the three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference on Wednesday that there’s probably not a lot of debris to recover and noted the part of the Black Sea where the drone landed is as much as 5,000-feet deep.
He reiterated, as other U.S. officials have said, that the U.S. took steps to disable software on the drone so the Russians would not be able to glean any highly sensitive information from it if they were to recover pieces of it.
John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in an interview with NBC News that the Russians were deliberately trying to get close to the drone.
“What we don’t know is how intentional the collision with the drone was,” Kirby said. “It is possible that this was just a reckless, incompetent piece of aviation by the pilot.”
In lieu of additional comment, a spokesperson for the National Security Council pointed to previous comments by Kirby, Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The U.S. has said the drone was flying in international airspace over international waters. Russia has warned the U.S. to stop coming so close to its borders.
Milley said the incident is part of a pattern of behavior by Russia that has recently gotten more aggressive.
Peter Alexander and Mosheh Gains contributed.