On Tuesday, a Russian Su-27 fighter forced down a US MQ-9 drone over the Black Sea.
Top US officials quickly put the finger of blame on Russia: Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said “unsafe and unprofessional” flying by the Russian aircraft nearly caused the Su-27 and the Reaper to crash. US European Command said one of the two Russian jets shadowing the Reaper intentionally flew in front of the drone and dumped fuel on it several times.
The US State Department summoned Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov over the incident. And in comments the following day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that relations between Russia and the US had hit their “lowest point.”
But the lowest point since when? Since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea? Since the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election? Or perhaps since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year? With the US and Russia routinely scraping bottom when it comes to bilateral relations, perhaps we need new superlatives to describe how bad things are.
There’s little denying that the midair encounter – Russia denies there was a collision – has exacerbated tensions between Moscow and Washington. But a bit of historical perspective serves as a reminder that confrontation between the two nuclear-armed nations can be much sharper.
Take, for instance, an often-overlooked chapter of the war in Syria. Back in February 2018, a US contingent on the ground in eastern Syria clashed with a force advancing on their base that included members of the Russian private military company Wagner. US troops called in air strikes and artillery on the opposing force, inflicting dozens of casualties on the Wagner mercenaries and their Syrian allies.
The battle was the deadliest encounter between US forces and Russian fighters since the end of the Cold War, but it did not lead to escalation: The Russian government at the time denied the existence of the mercenary group (Wagner today quite publicly bears the brunt of fighting for Russia around the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut). But back in 2018, reporting about the battle also highlighted the existence of a longstanding “deconfliction line” between the US and Russian militaries meant to minimize the risk of inadvertent escalation by keeping channels of communication open about military movements and operations.
Such channels remained open even after Russia’s full-invasion of Ukraine last year. Last March, the Pentagon acknowledged it had a deconfliction line open to avoid military miscalculations near Ukraine.
It’s not clear whether routine US drone flights over the Black Sea region rise to the level of deconfliction: National Security Council Communications Coordinator John Kirby said American assets “have been flying consistently over that airspace for a year,” he said, arguing there was no reason to activate deconfliction lines before flying over the Black Sea. And according to Kremlin spokesman Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin was briefed on the downing of the drone, but there were no highest level contacts between Moscow and Washington over the matter.
While lines of communication may be open, the US-Russia confrontation is certainly at levels not seen since the most dangerous moments of the Cold War.
“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” President Joe Biden told a group of Democrats last year in response to nuclear saber rattling by Putin. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
But though the Cold War saw the Cuban missile crisis and several nuclear close calls, it’s less remembered today that the Cold War escalated into a hot one between US and Soviet forces at several points during the decades-long confrontation.
During the Korean War, for instance, US fighter pilots engaged in aerial combat against Soviet MiGs. Those dogfights, however, remained shrouded in secrecy, with records quickly classified and participants sworn to secrecy. One of the reasons? Fears that making such incidents public might increase tensions between the two superpowers.
The same was also true for manned surveillance flights that the US carried out around — and sometimes over — Soviet territory. The downing of the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers in 1960 is the most famous case, creating major embarrassment for the United States and stirring worldwide media attention. But most of those programs remained classified, and out of the news, for decades.
One of the incidents that was only declassified decades later was the downing of Flight 60528, a US C-130 on a spy mission that was shot down over Soviet Armenia, killing its crew of 17. The US government has acknowledged that between 1945 and 1977, over 40 US reconnaissance aircraft were shot down on such missions.
So why the sound and fury over the downing of the Reaper? For one part, there’s an ongoing information war around the war raging in Ukraine. The Russians, for instance, have capitalized on the incident: In a bit of expert trolling, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said Russia would try to recover the wreckage of the MQ-9 in order to study it (two US officials told CNN that sensitive software on the unmanned aircraft was wiped before it crashed in the Black Sea).
Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert and Vice President for Studies & James Family Chair at the Carnegie Endowment, suggested in a thread on Twitter that the downing of the drone had another use for the Russians, allowing Moscow to maintain a credible bluff about their willingness to escalate in a confrontation with the West.
“Russian irritation about US and NATO activities in/around the Black Sea is nothing new,” he wrote. “Surely, people in the Kremlin are smart enough to know that US won’t back away from conducting surveillance missions like the drone flight that a Russian jet crashed into today.”
Added Weiss: “For more than a year, the Kremlin has routinely threatened to interfere with shipments of Western weapons to Ukraine yet has done nothing to back that up. For all the endless talk about possible escalation risks from a Russian attack, the reality is that deterrence has held. … Messing [with] a drone flight was a way for Moscow to try to rebuild its lost credibility – without threatening any US/NATO lives.”
But that’s the double edged sword of deterrence. Messing with a drone flight is one thing, but if Moscow acts in a way that does (publicly) threaten lives, then we may end up talking about a different scenario.