The stunning aerial video of a Russian jet buzzing and then apparently hitting a US drone over the Black Sea vividly shows how the war in Ukraine could spin out of control.
Clearly, the showdown, which has resulted in angry rhetoric between Washington and Moscow but nothing more, would have been far worse if the US Reaper drone had been a manned aircraft.
The fact a drone was involved has allowed both sides to calibrate their language to avoid an escalation, but the reverberations of the incident are still likely to have prolonged consequences.
The US and its allies are pumping billions of dollars of ammunition and sophisticated arms into Ukraine to be used against Russian forces, prompting worries that a miscalculation or incident could cause direct clashes between Russian and NATO assets.
And one of the most alarming aspects of the drone downing is that it took place in international airspace – not over Russian territory or the battlefield – and thus underscores how US and Russian forces could come into contact even outside the war zone.
Senior Russian defense officials approved the harassment of the drone, CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Kylie Atwood reported Wednesday, citing two US officials familiar with intelligence on the incident.
So it’s plausible this escalation was a deliberate decision to send some kind of message to the US, or to try to deter US intelligence gathering near Ukraine.
Russia has complained that the US drone infringed its self-declared air rules over the Black Sea. But this is a risible position, given its own huge violation of international law with an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state.
Regardless, the footage of the high-speed airborne clash shows that as long as the Ukraine war goes on — and the West is involved, even indirectly — the possibility for escalation that expands the conflict disastrously will constantly exist.
It will take careful management in both Washington and Moscow to lower the risk.