Pentagon reacts cautiously after Russian fighter jets down a U.S. drone
By Michael Pröbsting, International Secretary of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 17 March 2023, www.thecommunists.net
On 14 March Russian fighter jets intercepted a U.S. surveillance drone over the Black Sea close to the Crimea. The two Sukhoi Su-27 dumped fuel on the drone and finally caused it to crash in the sea. According to the Pentagon this has been caused by one of the Russian fighter jet colliding with the drone, a claim which the Kremlin denies. Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said that an attempt would be made to recover the drone debris.
Reflecting the serious character of this incident, shortly after calls took place between U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, as well as between Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russian General Staff.
Unsurprisingly, both sides put the responsibility for the crash to the other side. Moscow accuses the U.S. of provoking the incident by ignoring flight restrictions it had imposed because of its military operations in Ukraine. The U.S. said the drone was operating in international airspace.
This is a classic case of two crooks accusing each other of fraud. Obviously, the Pentagon is no innocent party. The drone was a MQ-9 Reaper – one of the U.S. most powerful unmanned aerial vehicles. It was produced by the U.S. as part of its hunter-killer program. It is often used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance as well as for targeted strikes. Since the Russian fighter jets intercepted the drone about 60 kilometres southwest of the Crimean port of Sevastopol (according to Russian media), its mission was clearly to spy on Russia’s military.
On the other hand, who is the Kremlin – which has invaded the Ukraine and annexed parts of its territory (including the Crimea) – to accuse others of illegal activities?!
Humiliation for Washington
This event is important for several reasons. While Russia and NATO member countries routinely intercept each other’s warplanes, the latest incident over the Black Sea marked the first time since the end of the Cold War in 1991 that a U.S. aircraft went down during such a confrontation.
This is clearly a humiliation for the self-proclaimed “indispensable nation” – even more so as it is one of their most modern fighter drones which costs $32 million each. It rubs salt into the wound that it would be, according to a Navy official, "extremely difficult and time-consuming" for the U.S. to recover portions of the downed aircraft since it does not have any ships in the area. 
It is unclear if the Russian Navy will manage to recover valuable parts of the debris in its search-and-rescue operation. This is no easy task since waters at the place of the crash are 1,200 to 1,500 meters deep. However, if they succeed, it might enable Russia to study the wreckage and find data parameters about US drones from sensitive parts of its debris.
A telling reaction by the Pentagon
The reaction of the U.S. is not less important than the incident itself. One could have expected a harsh reaction to the downing of one of the U.S. first-class drones by its arch-enemy. It is less than a year ago that Biden publicly called, in a major speech in Warsaw in March 2022, for the removal of Putin. (“For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.”) And Washington had imposed “sanctions from hell” against Russia after Putin invaded the Ukraine on 24 February 2022.
Of course, there are Cold Warriors like Lindsey Graham, a notorious Republican Senator from South Carolina, who said that Russia should be "held accountable" for the destruction of a US military drone. He said on Fox News: “What would Ronald Reagan do right now? He would start shooting Russian planes down if they were threatening our assets. American foreign policy is in freefall.” Addressing Putin, he threatened: “If you ever get near another US asset flying in international waters, your airplane will be shot down." 
Anatoly Antonov, Russian Ambassador to the United States, reacted furiously to Graham’s statement and threatened: "Some lawmakers’ calls go far beyond common sense. (…) Of course, it is a shame for the Pentagon to lose expensive piece of equipment. But in this case, the US military should redirect accusations of unprofessional actions back to themselves. (…) Does Senator Graham really believe that a direct military clash with Russia is in the interests of the voters who entrusted him with their lives and livelihood? (…) A deliberate attack on a Russian aircraft in neutral airspace is not just a crime under international law, but an open declaration of war against the largest nuclear power. An armed conflict between Russia and the United States would be radically different from the proxy war the Americans are waging remotely against us in Ukraine. Is the Capitol willing to put American citizens and the international community at risk of a full-scale nuclear war? Give us an answer, distinguished Senator!” 
However, Graham is a right-wing Republican who does not represent the Biden Administration. And, interestingly, the official reaction of Washington is very different. In fact, it works overdrive to avoid any escalation of the tensions with Russia. U.S. officials have emphasized that they don’t accuse Russia of intentionally bringing down the drone. John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, told reporters: “It is not clear to us that the pilots intended to strike the drone. At best, it’s reckless flying. At worst, it’s reckless and incompetent. (…) I can’t point to that video and say this is a deliberate intent to escalate.” 
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, even said that the U.S. does not ask the Kremlin for an apology! According to an official transcript of a press briefing, a journalist asked: “Did the U.S. [did] ask for an apology from Russia on taking down the drone? And did Russia offer an apology?”. Ryder replied: “No, we did not ask for an apology.” 
This kind of reaction makes it clear beyond doubt that Washington is not looking for an escalation of tensions with Russia in the present situation, despite the public humiliation it has suffered.
There are several lessons to be drawn from the Black Sea drone incident.
First, the fact that we have seen such a military encounter between the U.S. and Russia for the first time since 1991 shows the massive escalation of tensions between the two powers. It is not difficult to imagine how such incidents could result in a more serious confrontation. It confirms the analysis of the RCIT which has explained for some time that we are living in a period of accelerated rivalry between the imperialist Great Powers. 
Second, as shown above, there are clear signs that the Biden Administration is not looking for an escalation of the conflict with Russia. This confirms an important trend to which the RCIT did already point in a statement last November  and, in a more elaborated form, in a recently published document (“Towards a Turning Point in the Ukraine War?”). 
In the latter theses, we explained that there is a growing concern among the Biden Administration as well as Western European government that a continuation of the Ukraine War would harm their interests for several economic, political and military reasons. Since the Kremlin would most likely be prepared to accept a ceasefire which would leave the Russian army in control of the occupied territories, there are powerful objective factors which make “the Great Powers strive to impose a pacification of the conflict.” This is even more the case as “the White House and the Pentagon become uneasy with the fact that the Ukraine War deflects attention from its strategic focus on its rival China – that axis of conflict which they consider as the most fundamental challenge. Such worries exist all the more since the Ukraine War could dramatically escalate and transform into a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia.” Hence, we see a danger that the U.S. and the EU could try to force the Ukraine to stop its legitimate resistance against Putin’s invasion.
We can add now that Washington’s strive for pacification and avoidance of a military confrontation with Russia has certainly increased in the last few days since the beginning of the banking and stock market crisis. The Biden Administration will need a lot of money to finance its banking bail-out program and, therefore, is likely to have no interest in another escalation of its conflict with Moscow. 
This is even more the case as America is moving towards a Presidential campaign in which Biden’s likely opponents from the Republican party are positioning themselves as critiques for his support of the Ukraine. Both former President Trump as well as his inner-party rival Ron DeSantis (the Governor of Florida) have called for an end of Washington’s policy of confrontation with Putin. This could push the White House to deescalate the tensions with Moscow in the next period.
Russia aggressive attitude against the U.S. and the cautious reaction of Washington demonstrate, once again, that Russia is not a “semi-colonial” or “sub-imperialist” country as our critics repeatedly claim. It is rather, as the RCIT has explained in a number of documents, an imperialist Great Power in its own right. 
Finally, the Black Sea drone incident contains also powerful lessons for China. As it is well-known, there are repeatedly conflicts in the South China Sea and, in particular, in the Taiwan Strait as the U.S. regularly sends surveillance aircrafts for spying on Chinese military installations. The fact that Washington reacts rather cautious to the downing of one of its aircrafts will certainly encourage Beijing to confront similar incursions more aggressively.
Global Times – the English-language mouthpiece of the Stalinist-capitalist regime – published an article which quotes the views of Chinese military experts about the incident. Unsurprisingly, the restricted nature of the reaction of the White House did not slip their attention. One of military experts, Song Zhongping, is quoted as saying that “after the incident, the US may alter the way in which it collects related intelligence.” Zhang Xuefeng, another expert, said “that the US is using the incident to test Russia's bottom line in response to its aggressive deployment of drones, while Russia drew the line through the interception.” 
It might not take too long until we see a similar incident between American and Chinese aircrafts.
The stance of socialists
In face of the ongoing Ukraine War and the inter-imperialist rivalry between the Great Powers, we reiterate the RCIT’s position that this conflict has a dual character. It is a legitimate war of national defence by the Ukraine against Putin’s invasion. At the same time, the conflict contains also the conflict between two imperialist camps – the U.S. and Western Europe versus Russia.
Socialists have to take a consistent internationalist and anti-imperialist position which requires a dual tactic in such a situation. We side with the Ukraine – a semi-colonial capitalist country – against Russian imperialism but warn against the bourgeois and pro-NATO policy of the Zelensky government. We defend the Ukraine’s right to get weapons from wherever possible.
At the same time, we lend no support whatsoever to the chauvinist and militarist policy of any Great Power against its rivals (like e.g. armament programs or economic sanctions). The RCIT has summarised such an approach in the slogan: “Defend the Ukraine against Putin’s invasion! Beware of NATO and Zelensky – transform the resistance against the Russian occupation into a Popular War! Against Russian and against NATO imperialism!“
Hence, socialists don’t choose any side in military confrontations like the recent Black Sea drone incident, i.e. we take a position of dual defeatism against NATO as well as against Russian imperialism. This, of course, remains also the case if, contrary to the present indicators, the tensions between Washington and Moscow, would escalate.
 Quoted in CNN: Austin says US will continue to fly drones over Black Sea and condemns Russian downing as ‘aggressive’, 15 March 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/15/politics/lloyd-austin-russian-aircraft-us-drone/index.html
 Aditi Bharade: Lindsey Graham says the US should shoot down Russian fighter jets in response to Russia downing a US drone, Mar 15, 2023, https://www.insider.com/lindsey-graham-us-shoot-russian-jets-downed-drone-black-sea-2023-3
 TASS: Attack on Russian plane in neutral airspace to be seen as declaration of war — diplomat, 16 March 2023, /TASS/. https://tass.com/politics/1589407
 CNBC: White House spokesman calls drone incident ‘reckless’ but cannot say if it was intentional, 16.3.2023, www.cnbc.com%2F2023%2F03%2F16%2Fukraine-war-live-updates-latest-news-on-russia-and-the-war-in-ukraine.html
 Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder Holds an On-Camera Press Briefing, 16 March 2023, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/3332132/pentagon-press-secretary-brig-gen-pat-ryder-holds-an-on-camera-press-briefing/
 The RCIT has dealt on numerous occasions with the inter-imperialist rivalry of the Great Powers. See e.g. RCIT: World Perspectives 2021-22: Entering a Pre-Revolutionary Global Situation, 22 August 2021, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/world-perspectives-2021-22/; see also our book by Michael Pröbsting: Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry. The Factors behind the Accelerating Rivalry between the U.S., China, Russia, EU and Japan. A Critique of the Left’s Analysis and an Outline of the Marxist Perspective, RCIT Books, Vienna 2019, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/anti-imperialism-in-the-age-of-great-power-rivalry/; see also the following works by the same author: “A Really Good Quarrel”. US-China Alaska Meeting: The Inter-Imperialist Cold War Continues, 23 March 2021, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/global/us-china-alaska-meeting-shows-continuation-of-inter-imperialist-cold-war/; Servants of Two Masters. Stalinism and the New Cold War between Imperialist Great Powers in East and West, 10 July 2021, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/servants-of-two-masters-stalinism-and-new-cold-war/; for more works on this issue see these sub-pages: https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/china-russia-as-imperialist-powers/ and https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/global/collection-of-articles-on-the-global-trade-war/.
 RCIT: Ukraine War: The Liberation of Western Kherson Oblast and the Danger of a Great Power Deal. Full liberation of the Ukraine! Defeat Russian imperialism! No support whatsoever for NATO imperialism! 15 November 2022, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/global/ukraine-war-liberation-of-kherson-danger-of-great-power-deal/
 RCIT: Towards a Turning Point in the Ukraine War? The tasks of socialists in the light of possible lines of development of the war of national defence in combination with the inter-imperialist Great Power rivalry, 11 March 2023, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/global/towards-a-turning-point-in-the-ukraine-war/
 See on this e.g. Michael Pröbsting: “Markets are wild“: Banks and Stock Markets Teeter on the Brink. Some notes on the nature of the crisis and its political and economic consequences, 15 March 2023, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/global/banks-and-stock-markets-teeter-on-the-brink/
 The RCIT has published numerous documents about capitalism in Russia and its rise to an imperialist power. The most important ones are several pamphlets by Michael Pröbsting: The Peculiar Features of Russian Imperialism. A Study of Russia’s Monopolies, Capital Export and Super-Exploitation in the Light of Marxist Theory, 10 August 2021, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/the-peculiar-features-of-russian-imperialism/; by the same author: Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism and the Rise of Russia as a Great Power. On the Understanding and Misunderstanding of Today’s Inter-Imperialist Rivalry in the Light of Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism. Another Reply to Our Critics Who Deny Russia’s Imperialist Character, August 2014, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/imperialism-theory-and-russia/; Russia as a Great Imperialist Power. The formation of Russian Monopoly Capital and its Empire – A Reply to our Critics, 18 March 2014 (this pamphlet contains a document written in 2001 in which we established for the first time our characterisation of Russia as imperialist), http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/imperialist-russia/; see also these essays by the same author: Russia: An Imperialist Power or a “Non-Hegemonic Empire in Gestation”? A reply to the Argentinean economist Claudio Katz, in: New Politics, 11 August 2022, at https://newpol.org/russia-an-imperialist-power-or-a-non-hegemonic-empire-in-gestation-a-reply-to-the-argentinean-economist-claudio-katz-an-essay-with-8-tables/; Russian Imperialism and Its Monopolies, in: New Politics Vol. XVIII No. 4, Whole Number 72, Winter 2022, https://newpol.org/issue_post/russian-imperialism-and-its-monopolies/; Once Again on Russian Imperialism (Reply to Critics). A rebuttal of a theory which claims that Russia is not an imperialist state but would be rather “comparable to Brazil and Iran”, 30 March 2022, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/once-again-on-russian-imperialism-reply-to-critics/. See various other RCIT documents on this issue at a special sub-page on the RCIT’s website: https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/china-russia-as-imperialist-powers/.
 Liu Xin and Liu Xuanzun: Russian, US defense ministers discuss drone incident, hinting at little possibility of escalation, Global Times, 16 March 2023, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202303/1287419.shtml