Lawmakers are outraged over the aerial harassment by Russian jets that led to the downing of a $32 million American drone, but are expressing extreme caution to avoid escalating a conflict between the U.S. and Russia.
Senators told The Hill they expect to be briefed by the Department of Defense on the circumstances surrounding the confrontation between Russian jets in the Black Sea and the MQ9 drone that U.S. officials said was legally operating over international waters.
“I think we’ll be looking into whether the Russian pilots were authorized or simply on some sort of irresponsible gambit,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters.
“But, no question, it’s a concern. This was international space, and we had every right to be there, and I think we will demonstrate, in coming days, that we continue to feel that we have every right to be there and will be there again,” he added.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin struck a similar note on Wednesday, saying the “hazardous episode is part of a pattern of aggressive, risky, and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace,” but adding, “The United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.”
Senators from both sides of the aisle were quick to condemn the actions of the Russian pilots, saying that early indications and information point to a deliberate attempt at harassing the American drone. But they were more cautious over whether the collision that damaged a propeller was accidental or intentional.
“I think we can presume that the fighter jet pilot didn’t intentionally run into — he probably intentionally harassed, obviously, but there’s no real incentive for a pilot to run into another air airplane,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, told The Hill on Thursday.
His remarks came after the Pentagon released video of the air confrontation, apparently showing a Russian jet dumping its fuel and then hitting the drone, as shown from a camera attached to the unmanned aircraft. The video footage lasts for less than a minute, although U.S. officials said the confrontation lasted for about a half hour.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday that the U.S. still has not assessed the motivations of the Russian pilots, but he underscored that the Biden administration does not seek conflict with Russia.
“It is not clear to us that the pilots intended to strike the drone. At best, its reckless flying and at worst, its reckless and incompetent. We don’t know whether it is also intentional,” Kirby said.
“We do not — we have made clear on many occasions — we do not seek a conflict with Russia.”
Cramer said a strong response from the U.S. is necessary, which could include increasing the American presence in the Black Sea, but warned against an overreaction that would further inflame military tensions.
The incident comes about four months after the risk of a conflict between NATO member countries and Russia flared when two people were killed by an explosion in Poland caused by a Ukraine air defense missile warding off a Russian assault. Initial reports erroneously blamed the explosion on a Russian missile.
“The escalation is the reason why we don’t want to overreact,” Cramer said of the latest confrontation. “We don’t want to give Russia an excuse to do something. On the other hand, Russia has given us an excuse to do something and we need to respond in kind, but certainly in a non-escalatory way. Hopefully.”
U.S. officials and military and defense experts have said that confrontations amid surveillance missions between the U.S. and Russia occur, but the circumstances surrounding the downing of the MQ9 drone were unique in its brazen harassment.
“This is something we’ve been doing for a very long time over international waters and international airspace; that’s very troubling,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, told The Hill.
Russia claimed the U.S. drone was violating air space it has claimed over Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014 and that the U.S. and allies refuse to recognize.
“I think we can not believe anything the Russians say,” Shaheen said.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agreed with the initial reaction by the Biden administration to summon Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. to the State Department to voice objections to the Black Sea confrontation, along with U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy lodging objections with the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, called the actions by the Russian fighter pilots “provocative and dangerous.”
“My guess is we’ll take the necessary steps to protect our flights going forward, but I don’t expect there to be any specific response,” he told The Hill.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CBS on Thursday that the Biden administration should send more drones over the Black Sea and escort them with manned fighter jets if necessary.
“I think our response should be to fly more of these in that area and to potentially have them escorted by U.S. fighter jets who are manned and have the capability to respond,” he said.
Sen. Bill Haggerty (R-Tenn.), member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a former ambassador to Japan, said he wanted the issue raised by the members of the United Nations Security Council, even as Russia’s position as a permanent member gives it veto power of resolutions of condemnation against Moscow.
“When I was Ambassador of Japan, Russian pilots were extraordinarily aggressive in that part of the world,” he said. “This is definitely not the time for that sort of cowboy behavior.”
Al Weaver and Alex Gangitano contributed to this report. Updated at 1:24 p.m.