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US Accuses Russia of Unsafe Aerial Maneuvers over Syria

A second Russian aircraft flew “dangerously close” to a U.S. drone over Syria this week, just days after a Russian jet damaged another U.S. drone above the war-torn country, the White House said on Wednesday. “We have seen the early reports of a second Russian fighter aircraft this week flying dangerously close to our drone on a defeat ISIS mission,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters in a press briefing. She declined to comment further on the incidents. The incident comes just a day after the Pentagon released video footage showing a Russian SU-35 fighter jet closing in on an American MQ-9 Reaper drone. At the same time, it dropped flares that forced the drone to take evasive maneuvers. The air encounter, which followed an earlier one where a Russian fighter jet shook a U.S. drone and damaged its propeller, marks the sixth time this month that the Pentagon says Russia has harassed U.S. manned and uncrewed aircraft operating in Syrian skies.

A senior U.S. military official warned that the encounters “have raised the risk of escalation” between the two global powers. He urged Russia to follow deconfliction procedures and stop the harassment, which has increased since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. A top Russian general accused the United States of “disinform[ing] the public” about flights by U.S. drones that haven’t undergone proper deconfliction procedures.

U.S. military commanders communicate with Russian counterparts daily over a dedicated phone line to avoid accidental clashes in the skies above Syria, where both countries are conducting missions against ISIS extremists. In the latest incident, an Air Force Central Command spokesman confirmed that an MQ-9 drone was operating over Syria when it encountered two Russian fighter jets. The U.S. drone was notified of the approaching Russian aircraft through onboard systems, which automatically triggered a series of flares to be launched from the drone’s munitions bay. The Russian fighters reportedly fired four flares, including one that hit the Reaper drone and “severely damaged its propeller,” AFCENT said.

The spokesman said the drone could maintain flight and recover to its base. He added that the damage to the drone, valued at more than $30 million and carrying sensitive U.S. intelligence technology, did not affect its ability to conduct future missions.

The incident echoed another in March when a Russian Su-27 fighter jet struck the same type of U.S. drone over the Black Sea, causing it to lose control and crash into the water. The U.S. drone was also equipped with a fire-extinguishing system that helped it escape the water. A Case Western University professor and former State Department legal adviser specializing in drones and armed conflict said the encounters were unlikely to escalate into a broader confrontation between the two nations. “Russia has bigger fish to fry in Ukraine,” he said. “They don’t want to escalate the situation and risk a confrontation they might regret.” “The U.S. is on shaky legal ground in Syria,” he added, but noted that “this is not the kind of thing that was ever supposed to be used as a precursor to war.”

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