On March 14th, an incident occurred over the Black Sea in which a Russian SU-27 fighter jet downed an American MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea. The downing took place after the Russian pilot purposely released its fuel over the drone, forcing it down into international waters.
Through back channels, both Pentagon and Russian Ministry of Defense officials discussed the downing, and both plan on sending reconnaissance units to recover the remains. Washington has since scrubbed the drone of sensitive material but still plans to recover it.
Who will get to our drone first? Video courtesy of YouTube and CRUX.
Russia is Testing an American Response
Several dozen incidents have occurred during the ongoing war in Ukraine that has seen Moscow attempting to draw the limits of red lines of international response. Between targeting civilian ships off the coast of Ukraine, launching cruise missiles over Moldovan airspace, and threatening nuclear war on several dozen occasions, the Kremlin has been pushing to see the Western response to their actions.
Though the incident may have happened due to incompetence by a Russian pilot that tried to interfere with the drone, this has played into the Kremlin’s narrative. Amplifying their rhetoric that any type of assistance to Ukraine could resort to “World War III,” Moscow hopes that American public opinion will continue to call for military aid to be withdrawn from Kyiv. Several politicians and potential 2024 hopefuls have shared a similar message that assistance is not vital to Ukraine.
Moscow Wants To Turn the Black Sea Into Its Personal Lake
Russia’s imperial ambitions over the Black Sea have been intertwined with its national identity for years. Putin had compared his capture of Ukrainian territory around the coastline to Tsar Peter the Great’s conquest. Securing the southern coastline to reinforce their occupation of Crimea has been critical for Moscow’s plans to claim the Black Sea as “theirs.”
Despite having three NATO members who share a coastline in the Black Sea, Russia’s goal has been to assert authority there. Using their naval bases in occupied Ukrainian lands helps with their operations in the Mediterranean, and they see Ukraine and NATO as an obstacle to their renewed imperial ambitions.
Putin Will Always Choose Escalation Unless Checked
Vladimir Putin is a KGB (Committee for State Security, foreign intelligence, and domestic security agency of the Soviet Union) careerist and was taught to always choose escalation in the face of weakness. When the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) helped instigate the Second Chechen War on behalf of Putin, he knew the West would not react to his scorched earth methods, as seen in Grozny. Subsequent inaction in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and chemical weapons attacks in Syria in 2015 only emboldened the Russian autocrat even more.
Putin has historically backed off when confronted with a show of force or direct action. This was seen when Turkey shot down a Russian jet in 2015 and Azerbaijan when they downed a Russian helicopter in the 2020 Karabakh War.
The aura of Putin’s strongman image has come under mockery as Russia’s military capabilities have been diminished, and this could be his way of asserting authority in his own way. But, like any other despot, strongmen have only been checked through action, not appeasement.
The Incident Shows Why Ukraine Should Have Longer-Range Missiles
When Russia took down the American drone over international airspace, the pilot operated off the illegally occupied Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow turned into a military fortress since their 2014 occupation. Now staging their supply lines and supporting garrisons out of Ukrainian fire control since the introduction of HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems), Russia has adapted and used out-of-reach occupied Ukrainian territory for indiscriminate bombing campaigns and to harass international airspace.
The White House has been reluctant to send ATACMS—a long-range rocket system with a reach of 300 km due to fears they would be used on Russian territory. However, Crimea is internationally recognized as Ukraine. As Putin looks to turn the Black Sea into his own private lake, the discussion to bring ATACMS to Ukraine against the Black Sea Fleet should continue to be brought to the table.
A Closing Threshold on Deterrence
Though Washington does not need to drag our nation into war over a drone or directly intervene in Ukraine, unless attacked directly, it is essential to hold shows of force back at Moscow. Putin, who has gambled on weakened responses from his rivals throughout his political career, would be inclined to continue pushing the limits to see if a NATO member would respond to his provocations.
China is also watching how the US has responded throughout the war. Beijing, who has made its intentions clear in Taiwan and the South China Sea, threatening other Pacific allies such as Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, continues to study the war in Ukraine as much as the Pentagon.
Overall, the incident over the Black Sea makes the doctrine of maintaining deterrence against enemies even greater to implement in the upcoming months as foreign rivals will look to see how America and its allies in Europe respond to provocations by Moscow.