US condemns downing of military drone over Black Sea by Russian fighter jet
By Mike Collett-White
NEAR KREMINNA, Ukraine (Reuters) - The United States condemned the downing of a U.S. spy drone by a Russian fighter jet over the Black Sea on Tuesday, in an incident that underscored how the Ukraine war has increased the risk of direct confrontation between Moscow and Washington.
Two Russian Su-27 jets carried out what the U.S. military described as a reckless intercept of the MQ-9 "Reaper" drone in international airspace before one of them collided with it at 7:03 a.m. (0603 GMT), causing the drone to crash into the sea.
Several times before the collision, the Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the MQ-9, possibly trying to blind or damage it, and flew in front of the unmanned drone in unsafe manoeuvres, the U.S. military said.
Russia's defence ministry denied that its aircraft had come into contact with the drone, which it said had crashed after "sharp manoeuvring". It said the drone had been detected near the Crimea peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Army General Christopher Cavoli, briefed NATO allies about the incident.
The Pentagon said the incident likely caused damage to the Russian aircraft, though Russia's defence ministry said its jet fighters had "returned safely to their home airfield".
It was the first such episode since Russia's invasion of Ukraine just over a year ago. The Black Sea is bordered by Russia and Ukraine, among other countries.
"We have been flying over that airspace consistently now for a year ... and we're going to continue to do that," said White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.
The U.S. State Department later said it had summoned the Russian ambassador to protest the downing of the drone.
The incident occurred as Russian troops pushed forward in waves along the frontline in eastern Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed his view that Russia's very existence as a state was at stake in the war.
In the eastern Donbas region, Russia and Ukraine are locked in the bloodiest infantry battle in Europe since World War Two after Moscow launched a winter offensive.
Putin has framed Moscow's year-long "special military operation" as a defensive pushback against what he sees as a hostile West bent on expanding into territories historically ruled by Russia.
"So for us this is not a geopolitical task, but a task of the survival of Russian statehood, creating conditions for the future development of the country and our children," Putin said during a visit to an aviation factory in Buryatia, some 4,400 km (2,750 miles) east of Moscow.
Putin accuses the West of using Ukraine as a tool to inflict "strategic defeat" on Russia. Kyiv and its Western allies say Moscow is waging an unprovoked war of conquest that has destroyed Ukrainian cities, killed thousands of people and forced millions more to flee their homes.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Kremlin said Kyiv must accept "new realities" - its shorthand for Russia's claim to have annexed four regions, or nearly a fifth of Ukraine's territory.
"We have to achieve our goals. Right now this is only possible by military means due to the current position of the Kyiv regime," Russian state news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
In a video address, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine's "future is being decided" in battles in the east, including Bakhmut, where Ukrainian commanders say they are killing enough Russian attackers to justify staying and fighting for a wrecked city that has nearly been surrounded.
"It is very tough in the east - very painful," Zelenskiy said. "We have to destroy the enemy's military power. And we shall destroy it."
Zelenskiy and his military chiefs agreed on Tuesday to keep defending Bakhmut despite concerns among some military analysts that the losses Ukraine is suffering could undermine its ability to mount a planned counter-offensive when the weather improves.
"It is key to the stability of the defence of the entire front," said General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, praising his soldiers' fortitude.
Further north on the frontline near Kreminna, Oleksandr, 50, commander of a unit in Ukraine's 110th battalion, said Russian assaults were still relentless despite having claimed little ground there.
"They are pushing hard. They are lobbing mortar bombs at us," Oleksandr told Reuters. He said Russian three-man fire teams advanced, with another wave following to replace them when they were killed.
"At night they always attack on foot and we sit, looking through our thermal goggles and shooting them."
Both sides reported more civilian casualties near the front.
Zelenskiy said six high-rise buildings were hit in the centre of Kramatorsk by a Russian missile, killing at least one person and wounding three. On the Russian-occupied side, in Volnovakha further south, the body of a woman lay on a street next to a ruined shop. A Russian military investigator told Reuters the area was hit by Ukrainian shells.
Two civilians were also killed and one injured in Russian artillery shelling of two villages in the Kharkiv region in northeast Ukraine, regional prosecutors said.
Off the battlefield, talks continued on Tuesday to extend a deal to allow grain shipments from Ukraine's Black Sea ports that is due to expire this week after Kyiv rejected a Russian push for a reduced 60-day renewal.
The original deal was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to prevent global famine by securing wartime exports from Ukraine and Russia, both among the world's top food suppliers.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Peter Graff and Gareth Jones; Editing by Nick Macfie, Angus MacSwan and Cynthia Osterman)