WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s European Command on Thursday released the first declassified video images of the events leading up to a Russian fighter jet colliding with an unarmed U.S. reconnaissance drone on Tuesday, forcing the American aircraft down into the Black Sea.
The dramatic 42-second color video clip shows two high-speed passes by two Su-27 fighter jets, which spray a substance the Defense Department says is jet fuel on the MQ-9 Reaper drone. The Pentagon had previously said two Russian jets were involved in the incident, and a senior military official said on Thursday that the footage showed one pass from each jet.
On a final pass, one of the Russian jets collides with the drone, the Pentagon says, and the camera feed is lost for about 60 seconds. The footage that was released does not show the collision. The video then resumes, showing the aircraft’s damaged propeller, which the Pentagon said was struck by the Russian jet.
Defense Department officials said the video clip provided visual evidence to support the American version of the episode, the first known physical contact between the Russian and American militaries since the war in Ukraine started last year.
The Ukrainian military reported unusual Russian naval activity in the Black Sea on Thursday, with ships deployed in a way that suggested they were searching for the drone. Any successful salvage could be used by Moscow for propaganda purposes, but Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said Russia’s military would raise the drone only if necessary for security reasons.
A few hours after the video was released, the Pentagon said it was unlikely that Russia would be able to retrieve anything useful.
Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, called the drone debris “U.S. property.” But he said that while Moscow may be trying to get to the debris, any Russian recovery efforts would be difficult. Senior officials said the wreckage was probably under 4,000 to 5,000 feet of water.
“It is our assessment, again, that it is very highly unlikely that even if they were to recover it, there wouldn’t be anything useful,” General Ryder said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III on Wednesday accused Russia of “dangerous and reckless and unprofessional behavior” in blaming Moscow for the downing of the drone. Russia has denied any wrongdoing and initially said faulty maneuvering by the American drone operators caused the crash.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned the Black Sea into an effective battle zone. Russia has blockaded Ukrainian vessels within their own ports, though Ukraine has been able to export its grain across the sea under a deal signed last July between the two warring countries.
The United States and Ukraine say the American drone was flying in international airspace on a routine surveillance and reconnaissance mission. American and Ukrainian officials have said they share intelligence gathered by such missions, particularly related to the threat posed by Russian warships and submarines in the Black Sea.
The video clip released on Thursday captures just a slice of what Pentagon officials say happened in the roughly 40 minutes leading up to the collision. During that time, while the drone was flying at about 25,000 feet, two Russian Su-27 fighter jets made 19 high-speed passes near the Reaper, dumping jet fuel on it during the last three or four, a senior U.S. military official said on Wednesday.
The collision happened as one of the Russian planes approached the drone at a high speed from behind, striking the MQ-9’s rear propeller, the official said.
The damaged drone limped along before its controllers brought it down in the sea about 75 miles southwest of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia has used as a base for launching devastating strikes.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a larger version of the MQ-1 Predator drone, which the U.S. Air Force used until 2018. The Reapers are faster and can carry more munitions, according to the Air Force, which has paid as much as $32 million for one of them.