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 on Tuesday.
The footage, released Thursday morning by U.S. European Command and filmed from the drone’s on-board camera, shows a Russian Su-27 jet conducting what the U.S. calls an “unsafe/unprofessional intercept of a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 in international airspace.”
Russia has denied its planes came “into contact” with the drone and said the U.S. 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 video has been edited for length and not verified by NBC News, the U.S. military said it shows the events in sequential order.
The Russian jet can be seen approaching the drone, before it twice releases a long plume of fuel into the air while passing, the military said in the statement Thursday. 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 reestablished one of the drone’s propellers has been visibly damaged.
Three U.S. officials familiar with the relevant intelligence told NBC News that the highest levels of power within the Kremlin approved the Russian fighter jet’s aggressive actions.
It was the “Russian leadership’s intention to be aggressive in the intercept,” said one of the officials, although another said he had not gotten 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 Wednesday that Russian forces had already reached the area where the MQ-9 Reaper crashed.
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.
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.”
The U.S. summoned Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov to the State Department over the incident to convey strong objections to the incident.
Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee contributed.