KYIV, Ukraine — Russia and the United States ratcheted up confrontational rhetoric Wednesday over a U.S. surveillance drone that encountered Russian warplanes and crashed near the Crimean Peninsula, while both countries pledged to try to avoid escalation.

The Kremlin said the incident proved again that Washington is directly involved in the fighting and added that Moscow would try to recover the wreckage of the drone from the Black Sea. U.S. officials said the incident showed Russia’s aggressive and risky behavior and they pledged to continue their surveillance.

Russia has long voiced concern about U.S. surveillance flights near its borders, but Tuesday’s incident signaled Moscow’s increasing readiness to raise the ante amid soaring tensions between the two nuclear powers. It reflected the Kremlin’s appetite for brinkmanship that could further destabilize the situation and lead to more direct confrontations.

Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said in televised remarks the drone incident was “another confirmation” of direct U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict. The Kremlin has repeatedly said the United States and other NATO members have become direct war participants by supplying weapons and intelligence to the Kyiv government and pressuring Ukraine not to negotiate peace.

Patrushev, a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin, also said Russia planned to search for the drone’s debris. A U.S. official said it was unclear whether Washington would recover the fragments after securing the information it had gathered.

Russian jet, US drone crash over Black Sea, US military says

“I don’t know if we can recover them or not, but we will certainly have to do that, and we will deal with it,” Patrushev said. “I certainly hope for success.”

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the drone was in international airspace when a Russian fighter jet struck the propeller of the MQ-Reaper drone. U.S. officials accused Russia of trying to intercept the unmanned aerial vehicle, although its presence over the Black Sea was not uncommon.

“It is also not uncommon for the Russians to try to intercept them,” Kirby said, adding that such an encounter “does increase the risk of miscalculations, misunderstandings.”

Kirby said the U.S. “took steps to protect the information and to protect, to minimize any effort by anybody else to exploit that drone for useful content.”

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, said Russia has the technological capability to recover the drone’s fragments.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated the Defense Ministry’s statement that Russian jets didn’t use their weapons or impact the U.S. drone. He repeated his description of U.S.-Russia relations as at their lowest point but added that “Russia has never rejected a constructive dialogue, and it’s not rejecting it now.”

In Washington, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov expressed concern about “the unacceptable actions of the United States military in the close proximity to our borders.”

“What do they do thousands of miles away from the United States?” he said in remarks the Russian Embassy released Wednesday. “The answer is obvious — they gather intelligence which is later used by the Kyiv regime to attack our armed forces and territory.”

“It is the United States that is leading the situation to a deliberate escalation fraught with a direct armed conflict,” he said, adding that the U.S would have acted more forcefully if a Russian aircraft had appeared near U.S. borders.

“Let us ask a rhetorical question: If, for example, a Russian strike drone appeared near New York or San Francisco, how would the US Air Force and Navy react?” Antonov wrote on the embassy’s Telegram channel. “I am quite confident that the US military would act in an uncompromising way and would not allow its airspace or territorial waters to be breached.”

He noted that “it is important that the lines of communication should remain open,” emphasizing that “Russia does not seek confrontation and stands for pragmatic cooperation in the interests of the peoples of our countries.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Russian intercept was part of a “pattern of aggressive, risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace.” He said Russia must operate its aircraft in a safe manner.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, attend a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, Wednesday, March 15, 2023, at the Pentagon in Washington. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

“Make no mistake, the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows,” Austin said in remarks before a virtual meeting of a U.S.-led effort to coordinate Western military support for Ukraine.

While encounters between Russian and NATO aircraft are not unusual — before the invasion of Ukraine, NATO planes were involved in an annual average of 400 intercepts with Russian planes — the war has heightened the significance and potential hazards of such incidents.

“The last thing that we want, certainly the last thing that anybody should want, is for this war in Ukraine to escalate to become something between the United States and Russia, to have this actually … expand beyond that,” Kirby said, speaking Wednesday on CNN.

“We’ve been working very, very hard throughout the beginning of this conflict … to make sure that it doesn’t escalate into, particularly into that area,” he added.

The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, tweeted the drone incident was “a signal from Putin that he is ready to expand the conflict zone, with drawing other parties in.”

Separately, the U.K. defense ministry said British and German air force fighter jets were scrambled Tuesday to intercept a Russian aircraft near Estonian airspace. The U.K. and Germany are conducting joint air policing missions in Estonia as part of NATO’s bolstering of its eastern flank.

The defense ministry said the Typhoon jets responded after a Russian air-to-air refueling aircraft failed to communicate with Estonian air traffic control. The Russian plane did not enter the airspace of Estonia, a NATO member.

In Ukraine, at least three civilians were killed and another 23 wounded in Russian strikes over the previous 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said.

In eastern Ukraine’s partially occupied Donetsk province, where much of the heaviest fighting has been concentrated, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said 14 cities and villages were shelled. That included Kramatorsk, where some of Ukraine’s forces are based.

In embattled Bakhmut, where Russian forces have pressed an assault that has gone on for months, Ukrainian forces have successfully fought for northern parts of the city, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said.

“There are certain and significant successes of the armed forces of Ukraine who were able to achieve something in the north of the city,” Maliar told Ukrainian television. “Bakhmut is the epicenter (of fighting in the Donetsk region), the Russian occupiers are tryng to encircle and seize the city.”

In the northeastern Kharkiv region, one person was killed and another was wounded in Vovchansk, a city near the border with Russia. Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said Russian forces also hit a civilian area of Kharkiv itself, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

“There is no military or infrastructure facility in the vicinity of the place of the strike,” Mayor Ihor Terekhov said. “Only residential buildings and urban infrastructure.”

Speaking on Ukrainian television, Terekhov said a boarding school and an apartment building were damaged. No casualties were reported.

In the south, Russian forces shelled the city of Kherson seven times in the last 24 hours, hitting an infrastructure facility and residential buildings and wounding four people. In Dnipropetrovsk province, Russian forces shelled Nikopol and Marhanets, towns located across a river from the shut-down Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

Superville reported from Washington.

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