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.
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.