Jeffrey Edmonds is a senior fellow at the Wilson Center and the Center for a New American Security and recently director of the United States National Security Council for Russia.
Yulia Savchenko: During a hearing of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, General Michael Kurilla said that “the United States has increasingly observed the dangerous and unprofessional behavior of the Russian Air Force lately”. After the incident with the American drone over the Black Sea, the US State Department said that, most likely, the Russian side acted without prior intention. What do you think happened and how do you assess the rhetoric from Washington and Moscow about this incident?
Jeffrey Edmonds: The Russian Air Force and the Russian Navy are considered risky, especially compared to the Western military. This behavior is not new, but I agree with the US administration that it is likely that their actions were unintentional.
Very many immediately began to say that the Russian reaction was strategic and that it was an attempt at intimidation, coming directly from President Putin. I don’t think so: Putin couldn’t order a pilot to shoot down a foreign plane just to send a signal to another country – just because such a signal sounds very strange. Their fighter itself could have crashed, and then the question arises: what was the signal, if the result of the incident could be so deplorable?
I believe this is one of those cases that we have feared for many years. When I was at the White House, we discussed the potential risks of a pilot being stupid but completely unintentional and getting worse. Russia may start accusing us of shooting down something and there is a risk that the situation will spiral out of control. It is very disturbing that the US Department of Defense believes that the problem of risky behavior by Russian pilots has not only been around for a long time, but has worsened in recent times.
Yu.S. : Given the general situation in the region, was such an incident foreseeable?
DE: Yes, the likelihood of such incidents increased after the start of the war (Russia with Ukraine). But I want to remind you that the American drone was in international airspace. Russian planes regularly fly near America. I believe that due to the tension in the area, the pilots who were ordered to pursue our drone became more aggressive. Since we are more actively engaged in intelligence and in general in the region there is increased activity in the air, the likelihood of such incidents has increased significantly.
Yu.S. : You said that the Russian pilots were most likely ordered to escort the drone. But who gives such orders?
DE: It’s hard to say exactly. Several factors may have played a role. At a minimum, the pilots were ordered to escort the drone. But I would like to repeat once again that in the Russian Air Force and Navy there is a tradition of acting aggressively and performing almost acrobatic tricks in order to intimidate the opponent. This applies to both Russian military aircraft and ships. It is not yet clear: were they ordered to intimidate or only to escort and the escort simply went beyond that? They dropped fuel on the drone in an attempt to disrupt the sensors. It is not known whether these actions were carried out on order or not.
Yu.S. : The Russian Ambassador to the United States said that according to information from Russian sources, the American drone was collecting intelligence for the Ukrainian army. He also reminded that weapons of this type can be installed on drones of this type. Is this accurate information?
DE: I’m sure this is classified information. It is unclear whether the drone was collecting data for Ukraine or for our own purposes. Our drones have been flying in this airspace for many years. Therefore, nothing new has happened, but we know that the Russian government, as a rule, does not recognize the barriers established at the international level.
Part of the fundamental problem is that the Russian authorities believe they have certain privileges in this airspace. It doesn’t matter to them that the drone is flying in international airspace – it was just too close to them.
Such situations usually lead to incidents. We will continue to fly there. These drones are very expensive, but we have plenty of them and will continue to use them. Moreover, this incident is a kind of guarantee that we will continue to use them – after this incident, we cannot go back and stop using drones, otherwise it will become a very bad precedent. Therefore, I think the problem will remain.
Yu.S. : Are there any special protocols for resolving such situations safely?
DE: If a Russian bomber flies near California or Alaska, we can send some kind of plane to escort it safely. We understand that the Russian aircraft does not commit violations. When I was on the National Security Council, I urged the White House not to make official statements about Russian bomber flights: because such statements only contribute to the Russian government’s desire to appear stronger than it is not.
Yes, there are protocols for safe actions, Russia could respect them. The Russian fighters were also in international airspace and could simply escort the drone, stay close and observe it. Maybe they told us they were watching him.
But performing such aggressive maneuvers with drones… By the way, they behave the same way with manned aircraft. This can be very dangerous as people can die as a result of such behavior which will lead to an unintentional escalation and the situation can spiral out of control.
Yu.S. : Russia claims the drone was flying with the transponders turned off. Do you know anything about this?
DE: No, I don’t know if the transponders were on or off. As a general rule, our drones fly with their transponders on, except when there is a military need to turn them off. However, I remember cases when Russian Air Force planes flew with transponders turned off. A few years ago, a Russian Tu-95 flew over the English Channel with its transponder switched off, leading to the diversion of many commercial flights. Therefore, I would say it is a comical situation: after all, the Russians knew exactly the coordinates of our drone.
Yu.S. : How do you assess the tension reduction measures that were taken after the Black Sea incident?
DE: I think the conversation that took place between US Secretary of Defense Austin and Russian Minister of Defense Shoigu is good. These communication channels are always open. Many do not know that it is very easy for both parties to talk to each other if there is a desire. This was exactly the situation where the parties decided to follow very careful protocol and talk in order to avoid an unintended escalation.
I am sure that we have conveyed our opinion to Russia that such actions are absolutely unacceptable. I guess Shoigu said in response, “You flew too close to us.” I’m sure no solution was found, but at least they discussed the problem.
Yu.S. : In other words, each party has its own truth, and each country has made a statement in this regard. You said that if this course of action continues, there is a danger that the situation will spiral out of control. Are targeted actions taken to prevent such scenarios?
DE: I think we will continue to do what is not illegal. We are allowed to fly there and we will continue to fly there. If Russia wants to send its drones to the coasts of California or Alaska, for God’s sake let them fly, but in international airspace. The safest course of action going forward is to stop the Russians from doing dangerous things near American ships and planes.
We will not recognize any areas of international airspace as special Russian “areas of interest” where they believe we cannot fly. We will not accept this, because it could set a terrible precedent – not only for Russia, but also for China and international security in general.
Yu.S. : Russia is trying to recover the wreckage of an American drone. To what extent does Washington fear that this drone will fall into the hands of the Russian army?
DE: Of course, we would prefer it not to fall into the hands of the Russian military, but even if the Russians find it and study it, it will be very difficult for them to carry out a technical analysis of such a complex product. . Even if they can understand the design, they won’t be able to. They just don’t have that option, especially after the imposition of Western sanctions. Therefore, the threat level is low.
The other side of the coin is that, at least from what I heard on the news on the Turkish Ministry of Defense channel, they are going to allow American warships to enter these waters to find the wreckage of the drone. If that happens, the Russian government will be forced to agree to exactly the conditions it was trying to avoid: that is, as a result of Russian actions, it may have to allow ships of American war to enter the Black Sea. This is yet another example of how Russian leaders hurt themselves by creating situations they initially try to avoid.
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