WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to his Russian counterpart on Wednesday about the destruction of a U.S. drone over the Black Sea after an encounter with Russian fighter jets, which brought the two countries closest to direct conflict since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine a year ago.
It was the first call between Austin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu since October. And Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a similar call with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces.
“We take any potential for escalation very seriously. And that’s why I believe it’s important to keep the lines of communication open,” Austin said at a Pentagon press briefing. “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.”
The U.S. military said it ditched the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in the sea after a Russian fighter jet poured fuel on the surveillance drone and then struck its propeller while it was flying in international airspace. Russia has denied that it caused the accident. The U.S. has said it was working on declassifying surveillance footage from the drone that would show Tuesday's crash.
That the top U.S. and Russian defense and military leaders were talking so soon after the incident underscored the seriousness of the encounter over the Black Sea and that both sides recognized the need to tamp down the risks of escalation. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, contact between U.S. and Russian military leaders has been limited, with Russian officials refusing to take U.S. military calls in the early months of the war.
There are still questions as to whether Russia meant to down the drone, even though the moments that led up to its crash were “intentional,” said Milley, who stood alongside Austin at the briefing.
“We know that the intercept was intentional. We know that the aggressive behavior was intentional,” Milley said.
However, he told reporters that it was still unclear whether the collision itself was intentional. And he pushed back against Russia's contention that the fighter jets did not come in contact with the drone.
“We have absolute evidence of the contact,” Milley said. “It’s very aggressive. ... We have video evidence and all that."
Milley and Austin also left open the possibility that the U.S. could try to recover portions of the downed $32 million drone, which Milley said crashed into waters that were 4,000 to 5,000 feet (1,200 to 1,500 meters) deep.
Other U.S. officials said the U.S. doesn't have military ships in the region, and won't likely seek to recover wreckage. The Black Sea has been closed since early 2022 to military vessels that do not have a home port along its shores.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details not yet made public, said Russia has already sent ships to the area and attempted to recover pieces of the drone.
Milley downplayed the significance of any potential recovery by Russia.
“It probably broke up. There’s probably not a lot to recover,” he said. “As far as the loss of anything of sensitive intelligence, etc. ... we would take — and we did take — mitigating measures. So we’re quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value.”
U.S. officials have refused to detail what steps were taken to protect sensitive technology on the drone or the video it collected during its surveillance mission. But officials have long acknowledged that the U.S. can remotely remove sensitive information from high-tech drones and make systems inoperable so they aren't of much value.
Milley and Austin also said the incident would not stop the U.S. from flying wherever international law allows.
Details of Milley's call with Gerasimov would be kept private, Joint Staff spokesman Army Col. Dave Butler said in a statement. Gerasimov was named the new commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine in January and its previous commander demoted in an apparent sign of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dissatisfaction with the state of the war, which has been stalemated.
If the call between Austin and Shoigu was de-escalatory in private, it was not apparent from Russia’s public statements.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters earlier Wednesday that Russia has declared certain areas of the Black Sea off-limits to any aerial traffic during the conflict and suggested the U.S. was trying 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.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Shoigu, in the call with Austin, noted that the flights of U.S. drones near Crimea were “provocative” and risked escalating tensions in the Black Sea. He said Russia would respond “in kind to all provocations” in the future, but also noted that the two nuclear powers must act responsibly and maintain channels of communication.
Asked about the call, Austin declined to provide any details.
Austin and Shoigu first spoke about Russia's invasion of Ukraine in May 2022. At the time it was the highest level U.S.-Russian contact of the war.
In October, they spoke twice in three days as the threat of an escalation was high. Shoigu had accused Ukraine of planning to use a dirty bomb, a claim that was strongly rejected by U.S. and Western allies, who accused Russia of seeking a false pretext to justify further escalation, potentially including the use of a tactical nuclear weapon.