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On Tuesday, a Russian Su-27 fighter forced down a US MQ-9 drone over the Black Sea.
In comments the following day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that relations between Russia and the US had hit their “lowest point.”
But the lowest point since when? With the US and Russia routinely scraping bottom when it comes to bilateral relations, perhaps we need new superlatives to describe how bad things are.
A bit of historical perspective serves as a reminder that confrontation between the two nuclear-armed nations can be much sharper:
The war in Syria. In February 2018, a US contingent on the ground in eastern Syria clashed with a force advancing on their base that included members of the Russian private military company Wagner. US troops called in air strikes and artillery on the opposing force, inflicting dozens of casualties on the Wagner mercenaries and their Syrian allies.
The Cold War. Though the Cold War saw the Cuban missile crisis and several nuclear close calls, it’s less remembered today that the Cold War escalated into a hot one between US and Soviet forces at several points during the decades-long confrontation.
The Korean War. During the Korean War, US fighter pilots engaged in aerial combat against Soviet MiGs. Those dogfights, however, remained shrouded in secrecy, with records quickly classified and participants sworn to secrecy. One of the reasons? Fears that making such incidents public might increase tensions between the two superpowers. The same was also true for manned surveillance flights that the US carried out around — and sometimes over — Soviet territory. The downing of the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers in 1960 is the most famous case, creating major embarrassment for the United States and stirring worldwide media attention. But most of those programs remained classified, and out of the news, for decades.
The Russians have reached the MQ-9 crash site in the Black Sea, according to two US officials, as the Kremlin promises to attempt to recover the US surveillance drone.
Russia’s Navy has several ships in the Black Sea, including ships based in Crimean ports, which would have placed them in an advantageous position to attempt to recover the US MQ-9 Reaper drone after its encounter with Russian fighter jets on Tuesday.
The drone came down in international waters approximately 70 miles southwest of Crimea, one of the officials said. It is unclear if Russia was able to recover any of the wreckage from the drone when they arrived at the crash site.
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby would not confirm that Russians were at the site. He reiterated however that the US took steps to make it "impossible" for Russia to acquire any useful information from the drone's remnants.
"Whatever's left of that that's floating will probably be flight control surfaces, that kind of thing," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "Probably nothing of real intrinsic value to them in terms of re-engineering or anything like that. We're not overly concerned about whatever they might get their hands on."
He added: "It's our property and they have no business recovering anything."
The Russian Security Council Secretary said Wednesday that Russia will try to obtain the drone wreckage to study it.
“I don’t know if we will be able to get it or not, but we need to do it... And we will definitely look into it,” said Nikolai Patrushev on on Russian state TV Rossiya 1.
The drone landed in a part of the Black Sea that’s likely almost a mile deep, Gen. Mark A. Milley said, making any recovery effort extremely difficult. The US also has no Navy ships in the Black Sea, compounding the challenges in any US recovery attempt.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the United States on Wednesday of "ignoring" the airspace restrictions that Russia imposed in the coastal regions of the Black Sea since the start of the war with Ukraine.
"They completely ignore the fact that after the start of a special military operation, our military declared the relevant areas of the Black Sea, adjacent in certain places, as areas with a limited status for the use of any aircraft," Lavrov said in an interview with Russian state TV Rossiya-1.
Lavrov also blamed the US for "constantly looking for provocations aimed at increasing tensions."
"Any incidents that provoke a clash between the two great nuclear powers always pose a great risk," he said.
The main focus of a telephone conversation between Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, on Wednesday was on the "causes and consequences" of the downing of a US drone over the Black Sea, the Russian defense ministry said.
Shoigu told Austin the incident was "caused by the US actions of non-compliance with the flight restriction zone declared by the Russian Federation" established in connection with the special military operation in the region, according to a readout.
"It is noted that the US flights of strategic unmanned aerial vehicles off the coast of Crimea are provocative in nature, which creates preconditions for the escalation of the situation in the Black Sea area," the readout said.
Shoigu said that Russia "will continue to respond to all provocations in a proportionate manner," according to the readout of the call.
Some context: The US said that while flying in international airspace over the Black Sea, a Russian Su-27 jet dumped fuel on a US MQ-9 Reaper drone several times. One of the Russian jets then hit the drone, damaging it and forcing US officials to crash it into the water.
United States officials say they likely will not be able to retrieve a drone forced down by Russian jets in the Black Sea. The incident is part of a pattern of “aggressive, risky and unsafe" behavior from Russia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the incident is under investigation and that the US is in "close coordination" with allies.
Here's everything to know to get up to speed:
- What to know about the drone intercept: While flying in international airspace over the Black Sea, a Russian Su-27 jet dumped fuel on a US MQ-9 Reaper drone several times, US military and defense officials said. One of the Russian jets then hit the drone, damaging it and forcing US officials to crash it into the water, Austin said.
- Recovery efforts: The US Air Force primarily uses the MQ-9 drone to collect intelligence, according to the service’s website. The aircraft will likely not be recovered by the US, but sensitive software on the drone was remotely erased before it crashed to prevent Russia from collecting secret information, according to two US officials. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said the drone fell into very deep water and the Navy does not have any vessels in the area, making recovery efforts difficult. He said the US will work with allies in the area to try to get it out. Russian officials have said they will also try to get to the wreckage in order to study it.
- Russian response: The Kremlin said relations between Russia and the US are at their “lowest point” and in a “deplorable state,” following the drone's downing. Moscow pushed back, denying its fighter jets came "into contact" with the US drone. Milley said that US officials have "absolute evidence" that the two aircraft came into contact, but said they are not sure if it was intentional. Milley, however, did reiterate that "the aggressive behavior was intentional." Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said he denied all accusations against Russia after being summoned to the State Department.
Here are the other key headlines from the war:
- Battle in Bakhmut: In a city still seeing intense fighting, Austin applauded the "valor" and the "persistence" of the Ukrainian soldiers fighting in Bakhmut. Less than 3,000 people — including 33 children — remain in the embattled city, according to the Donetsk regional military administration. A soldier from Ukraine's 93rd Mechanized Brigade destroyed a Russian jet over Bakhmut Wednesday, according to a commander.
- Why this matters: President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that a Russian capture of Bakhmut would give them an “open road” to capturing other key Ukrainian cities in the east. Milley said that any decision on whether Ukrainian forces should remain in the eastern city or be repositioned would be made by Zelensky.
- Russian movement: Russia is making “small tactical advances” around the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, but “at great cost,” Milley said. Meantime, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said his fighters have captured a small settlement north of Bakhmut earlier on Wednesday. Prigozhin also acknowledged that a small number of Afghan fighters are working with the private military company.
Russian shelling killed at least two people and injured five others in Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk region on Wednesday, Serhii Lysak, the head of the Dnipropetrovsk regional military administration, said in a Telegram post.
Two women, ages 62 and 57, were killed in the city of Marhanets, he said. According to preliminary information, a man and three women were hospitalized, and another injured woman will be treated on an outpatient basis, he said.
More than a dozen multistory buildings and several private houses in Marhanets were damaged in the shelling, the regional administration said in a separate post.
"One of them caught fire — rescuers have already extinguished the fire. A shop, a cultural center and a dormitory were damaged," the regional administration said.
Less than 3,000 people — including 33 children — remain in the embattled city of Bakhmut, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional military administration.
"The evacuation continues, and not only in Bakhmut, we are working along the entire frontline," Kyrylenko said on national television Wednesday.
Evacuation is mandatory in the region, but some people still refuse to leave, he said.
"There are still people who definitely do not want to leave, and it is a very difficult task to persuade them. More than 1,100,000 people out of 1,670,000 have left Donetsk region since February 24, 2022," he added.
A soldier from Ukraine's 93rd Mechanized Brigade destroyed a Russian Su-25 jet over Bakhmut, according to a commander.
The announcement comes after the head of Ukraine's President’s Office, Andriy Yermak, also said forces from the 93rd Mechanized Brigade had shot down a Russian military plane near Bakhmut.
Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi of the Land Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said the Russian military "continues to unsuccessfully try to surround the city and advance."
"The soldiers of the 93rd Brigade, along with other defenders, are holding back the enemy's fierce pressure there. Due to their work, enemy tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, MLRS and ammunition depots are blown up," Syrskyi said in a Telegram post.
"The occupiers are also putting pressure on the Kupyansk and Lyman directions," he said, adding that soldiers from the 92nd Brigade have managed to destroy Russian radar systems and command centers in those directions.
CNN has been unable to confirm the Ukrainian claims.