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Pentagon manages new tensions after a Russian warplane hit an unarmed U.S. drone

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. Sacha, I need you to catch me up a little bit. I've been on assignment the last couple of days, as you know, and I only just heard a little bit about some kind of drone. What happened with this drone?

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

So there was an American drone flying over the Black Sea doing some kind of surveillance. It ended up in the water. This happened Tuesday. The U.S. says a Russian plane struck it, but Russia claims the plane and the drone didn't even make contact. Now, there is a video - we've been seeing it in the studio this morning - but there's still disagreement about the video.

INSKEEP: Yeah, you see this plane swooping by the drone - the drone's-eye view. And NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has been following this. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So can this video out today resolve this dispute about the facts?

MYRE: Well, it is pretty compelling. The video shows Russian jets making two passes very close to the U.S. drone from behind. In the first one, the Russian jet sprays fuel in an apparent attempt to fog the camera or sensors on the drone. And then there's almost an identical second pass. The Russian jet again sprays fuel, and this time, the video feed goes blank. The video feed recovers. The military says it took about 60 seconds. And then you clearly see one prop or blade on the propeller that's mangled. The U.S. says the drone was unable to fly at this point and then crashed into the Black Sea off Ukraine's southern coast.

INSKEEP: OK, So you don't have video of the Russian plane literally striking the drone, but you have evidence of some kind of damage and evidence of this fuel spray. And I guess we should mention that anybody can look at this video for themselves now.

MYRE: That's right, Steve. It's all over social media. And just be aware if you're watching it. The, propeller on this drone is at the back of the drone. So the camera is filming the back side of the aircraft. And the video is a little over 40 seconds. The Pentagon says it was edited, but it was shown in the order that the events happened.

INSKEEP: Are the Russians responding?

MYRE: No, not immediately. Their position has been that there was no contact between the jets and the drone and that the drone crashed on its own.

INSKEEP: Now, given the repeated passes of the plane by this drone, based on the video, does the U.S. assert that the Russian pilot deliberately brought the drone down?

MYRE: Well, they're not sure. The top U.S. general, Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said he's not convinced or not sure yet. He spoke about this at the Pentagon yesterday.

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MARK MILLEY: Was it intentional or not? Don't know yet. We know that the intercept was intentional. We know that the aggressive behavior was intentional. We also know it was very unprofessional and very unsafe.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's what the U.S. military is saying in public. What are they saying when they reach out to their Russian counterparts on the phone?

MYRE: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Russian counterpart, and Austin said the U.S. would continue to fly wherever international law allows. And this means continued flights over the Black Sea off Ukraine's southern coast. You can just go on social media to the sites that track the U.S. planes, and you can see them making these repeated circles over international airspace in the Black Sea. They're trying to pick up information, perhaps about Russian troops in southern Ukraine or Russian warships in the sea.

INSKEEP: What does this say about the possibility of some accidental conflict between the United States and Russia?

MYRE: Well, it shows how quickly things can escalate. But it's also clear that President Biden is taking a very measured response here. The U.S. is not making any public demands on Russia or threatening any retaliation. It's - clearly, U.S.-Russian relations are extremely troubled at this point. But Secretary Austin stressed the importance of keeping the lines of communication open.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: I think it's really key that we're able to pick up the phone and engage each other, and I think that will help to prevent miscalculation going forward.

MYRE: And given the latest developments we have here, they may need to have another phone call.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre, I'm glad you got on the line with us.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.