Russia and NATO were one step away from a potential all-out war last year after a Russian fighter jet allegedly almost shot down a British surveillance aircraft, the Washington Post claimed on Sunday, citing a document from a trove recently leaked from the Pentagon.
The incident, which occurred in late September 2022, took place near Russia’s Black Sea coast and was much more serious than London had previously admitted, the newspaper claimed. In October 2022, UK Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace briefed Parliament that Moscow blamed the close call on a technical malfunction, and that London had accepted the explanation.
The document seen by the Post describes it as a “near-shoot down of UK RJ” – a reference to the ‘River Joint’ moniker common for the RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft used to collect radio transmissions and electronic messages. The UK said in October that the plane had been intercepted by two Russian Su-27 fighters over the Black Sea, with one of them “releasing a missile” near the plane.
According to the newspaper, the incident could have triggered Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, possibly leading to the direct involvement of NATO forces in the conflict in Ukraine, or even a direct conflict between Moscow and the military bloc.
Neither the US, the UK, nor Russia have commented on the contents of the document, the Washington Post said. The newspaper also reported that the US took a more cautious approach towards reconnaissance missions in the Black Sea region, instructing the Air Force to stay away from the Crimean Peninsula.
A map in the document shows several lines drawn over sections of the Black Sea to mark safe areas for American surveillance aircraft, according to the Post. One of them demarcates an area around 12 nautical miles off the coast of Crimea – the edge of Russia’s territorial waters under international law.
Another line drawn around 50 nautical miles from the shore is called ‘SECDEF Directed Standoff’. According to the outlet, this line may indicate that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered the Air Force to keep their aircraft away from the peninsula.
Unlike France and the UK, which deploy manned surveillance flights over the Black Sea, the US has relied on drones, including the RQ-4 Global Hawk, the RQ-170 Sentinel, and the MQ-9 Reaper, the document said, adding that several unmanned flights take place every month.
In March, the Pentagon accused Russian pilots of reckless flying and claimed one had clipped the propeller of a US Reaper UAV, causing it to go down. Russia denied hitting the drone or using weapons against it, and claimed the aircraft was flying with its transponder switched off in a no-go zone declared by the Russian military.
A video reportedly taken from the drone only shows a Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jet buzzing over it and allegedly ejecting fuel. According to CNN, the Pentagon has further rerouted its surveillance drone flights over the Black Sea in the wake of the incident.