By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Olena Harmash
WASHINGTON/KIEV, March 15 (Reuters) – The U.S. military said a Russian warplane severed the propeller of one of its spy drones, causing it to crash into the Black Sea, in the first direct encounter of this type between the two powers since Russia invaded Ukraine more than a year ago.
The Russian Defense Ministry offered a different version of Tuesday’s incident, while its ambassador to the United States said his country considers the incident, which involved a US MQ-9 drone and a Russian Su- 27, as a “provocation”.
The United States, which conducts regular surveillance flights in the region, has supported Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in military aid, although it has not been directly involved in the war.
Russia has shelled dozens of settlements along the eastern front in the past 24 hours, including a rocket attack on civilian infrastructure in the Kherson region that caused civilian casualties, the Ukrainian military said on Wednesday. .
Information about the battlefield could not be verified and Russia denies attacking the civilian population.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday evening that his country’s military commanders were unanimous in favor of defending the eastern front line, including the ruined city of Bakhmut, besieged by Russia for months.
“The main target was… Bakhmut,” Zelensky said in his late-night video address. “There was a clear position of the whole command: reinforce this sector and destroy the occupants as much as possible.”
Zelensky sacked the governors of three regions: Luhansk in the east, Odessa on the Black Sea, and Khmelnitsky in the west. No reason was given for this decision in the announcement of the parliamentary representative of the government.
Hanna Malyar, Ukraine’s state secretary for defence, said Russia is “on the offensive” across the front in the eastern region of Donetsk, where fighting is also taking place around the Kreminna and other towns in the north of Bakhmut.
The defense of Bakhmut is important because “a large amount of enemy material is destroyed (…). A large number of soldiers are killed and, to date, the enemy’s advance capacity is reduced”, a- he declared on Ukrainian television.
Faced with the growing number of victims, Russian lawmakers have proposed amendments to the citizenship law to allow the withdrawal of citizenship acquired by treason and discredit what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
On the economic front, talks continued to extend an agreement allowing the shipment of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which expires this week. Ukraine rejected Russia’s request for a 60-day extension, half the length of the previous one.
Two Russian Su-27 planes intercepted a US spy drone in international airspace, according to the US military. Russian fighters dumped fuel on the MQ-9, possibly to blind or damage it, and flew past it performing dangerous maneuvers.
After 30 to 40 minutes, at 07:03 (06:03 GMT), one of the fighters collided with the drone, causing it to crash, according to the US military.
Russia did not recover the drone and the plane was likely damaged, the US Department of Defense said.
“In fact, this dangerous and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused the two planes to crash,” said US Air Force General James Hecker, who oversees the US Air Force in the United States, in a statement.
The Russian Defense Ministry has denied that its planes came into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which it said crashed after a “rough maneuver”. He added that the drone was detected near the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The US State Department has summoned Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov to discuss what happened, its spokesman Ned Price said.
In remarks posted on the Russian Embassy’s website early Wednesday, Antonov said the US plane “deliberately and provocatively” headed into Russian territory with its transponders switched off.
“Unacceptable US military activity near our borders is concerning,” Antonov said. “They collect intelligence information, which is then used by the kyiv regime to attack our armed forces and our territory.”
Versions of the incident in the Black Sea, the border between Russia and Ukraine, among other countries, could not be independently verified.
Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said this is a “very delicate phase of this conflict, because this is really the first direct contact that the public knows between the West and Russia”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he invaded Ukraine to defend Russia against a hostile West determined to expand into territories Putin considers historically Russian.
Ukraine and its Western allies say Russia is waging an unprovoked war of conquest, which has destroyed Ukrainian cities, killed thousands and forced millions more to flee their homes.
(Reporting by Reuters Newsrooms; Writing by Grant McCool and Stephen Coates; Editing by Himani Sarkar, Robert Birsel; Editing in Spanish by Dario Fernández)