US and Russia resume contact after drone incident over Black Sea

ecretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, right in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2023.
ecretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, right in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Copyright Andrew Harnik/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Euronews with AP
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"We take any potential for escalation very seriously," said US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday. "That’s why I believe it’s important to keep the lines of communication open."

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US and Russian officials have resumed contact, following the downing of a US drone over the Black Sea after an encounter with Russian fighter jets.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to his Russian counterpart on Wednesday, after the incident which brought the two countries the closest to conflict since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine last year. 

“We take any potential for escalation very seriously," said Austin at a Pentagon press briefing. "That’s why I believe it’s important to keep the lines of communication open." 

“I think it’s really key that we’re able to pick up the phone and engage each other. And I think that that will help to prevent miscalculation going forward,” he added.

The call between Austin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was the first since October. 

The US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper was ditched into the waters south of Ukraine, after a Russian fighter jet sprayed it with fuel and struck its propeller. 

Russia has denied that it downed the surveillance drone, which was flying into international air space. 

Washington says it is working to declassify surveillance footage from the drone showing Tuesday's crash.

Austin, who stood with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley at the briefing, said the incident would not stop the US from flying wherever international law allows. 

However, Russia has since claimed certain areas of the Black Sea are off-limits. 

The fact the top US and Russian officials were talking after the incident highlights the seriousness of the encounter, with both sides aware of the need to de-escalate the situation. 

Contact between the two countries has been limited since the start of the invasion in February, whereas in previous combats where both armies operate, such as Syria, communication has been more thorough. 

Big questions remain over whether Russia meant to down the multi-million dollar drone, although General Milley has suggested the moments that led up to the incident were "intentional".  

“We know that the intercept was intentional," he said. "We know that the aggressive behaviour was intentional.” 

Asked about the call, Austin declined to provide any details. But he pushed back against Russia's claim its fighter jets did not come in contact with the drone.

“We have absolute evidence of the contact,” added Milley. “It’s very aggressive ... we have video evidence and all that."

Both US officials also left open the possibility that the US could try to recover portions of the downed $32 million drone, which Milley said fell into waters that were 1,200 to 1,500 metres deep.

If the call between Austin and Shoigu led to de-escalation in private, it was not apparent from Russia’s public statements afterwards.

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On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters Russia has declared certain areas of the Black Sea off-limits to any aerial traffic during the conflict. 

The top Russian diplomat suggested Washington was aiming to provoke an escalation through the flights. 

The drone crashed near Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014 and illegally annexed.

“Any incidents that could provoke confrontation between the two great powers, the two largest nuclear powers, raise very serious risks," Lavrov said.

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