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Russia races to find drone debris in Black Sea; US says it has no value

Russia has said it would try to retrieve the remains of a US military surveillance drone that fell into the Black Sea after an incident involving Russian fighter planes, accusing Washington of “directly participating” in the Ukraine conflict.

Moscow also warned on Wednesday that it would react “proportionately” to any future US “provocations” as tensions simmered and Moscow denied its Su-27 military aircraft had clipped the propeller of the unmanned Reaper drone.

Kremlin Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev told the Rossiya-1 TV channel, “I don’t know whether we will be able to retrieve it or not, but that it has to be done. And we’ll certainly work on it. I hope, of course, successfully.”

“Secondly, regarding the drone — the Americans keep saying they’re not taking part in military operations. This is the latest confirmation that they are directly participating in these activities — in the war,” he said.

But Washington was unbowed, with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin telling his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu that the United States would continue flying “wherever international law allows.”

Moscow confirmed the call and said Washington had initiated it.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said US drone flights off the coast of Crimea “are provocative in nature, which creates preconditions for an escalation of the situation in the Black Sea zone,” while Kiev suggested the incident was evidence the Kremlin wanted to draw the United States into the Ukraine conflict.

Live blog: Russia says US drone flights off Crimea ‘provocative in nature’

Ukraine warns Putin is expanding conflict 

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told journalists that any recovery effort would be difficult, as the drone likely broke up and sank in an area where the water is 1,200-1,500 metres deep.

Even if Russia was able to recover the wreckage, the United States took “mitigating measures” to protect sensitive information.

“We are quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value,” Milley said.

The crash on Tuesday, which Washington said was the fault of reckless and unprofessional Russian conduct, further ratcheted up tensions between Moscow and Western allies, already soaring over the Ukraine conflict.

Russia said it had scrambled jets after detecting a US drone over the Black Sea, but denied causing the crash, saying the aircraft had lost control.

The Pentagon said the drone was on a routine mission when it was intercepted “in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner” and White House national security spokesperson John Kirby refuted Russia’s denial.

Ukraine said the incident was “provoked by Russia” and cautioned that it signalled President Vladimir Putin’s aim to “expand the conflict”.

NATO diplomats in Brussels confirmed the incident, but said they did not expect it to immediately escalate into a further confrontation.

A Western military source, speaking to AFP news agency on condition of anonymity, said diplomatic channels between Russia and the United States could help limit any fallout.

Russia’s campaign in Ukraine has led to heightened fears of a direct confrontation between Moscow and the NATO alliance, which has been arming Kiev to help it defend itself.

READ MORE: US drone downing: Unanswered questions and conflicting accounts

US says it brought down drone

The United States uses MQ-9 Reapers for both surveillance and strikes and has long operated them over the Black Sea to keep an eye on Russian naval forces.

Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder said the drone was “unflyable and uncontrollable so we brought it down”, adding that the collision also likely damaged the Russian aircraft, which he said was able to land following the incident.

Several US Reapers have been lost in recent years, including to hostile fire.

One was shot down in 2019 over Yemen with a surface-to-air missile fired by Houthi rebels, the US Central Command said at the time.

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