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- First known direct U.S.-Russia confrontation since invasion
- Moscow says U.S. directly participating in war
- U.S. accuses Russia of behaving aggressively and irresponsibly
- Situation in eastern city of Bakhmut ‘difficult’ – official
- Putin urges Russian billionaires to invest in Russia
NEAR BAKHMUT, Ukraine/WASHINGTON, March 16 (Reuters) – The Pentagon released on Thursday a de-classified video showing a Russian military jet intercept a U.S. drone downed over the Black Sea two days ago, rare footage that highlights the risks of a direct clash between the world’s leading nuclear powers.
The United States has said Tuesday’s incident shows Russia is behaving irresponsibly in international airspace, while Moscow accuses Washington of trying to escalate tensions near Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula it forcibly annexed in 2014.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv’s forces continued to withstand Russian assaults on the now-ruined city of Bakhmut. Reuters reporters heard a constant rumble of artillery on all sides at about 1.5 km (0.9 mile) from the frontline.
“Sometimes we see groups of seven people (Russian soldiers). We strike, three fall and the rest continue to advance,” said Marian, 21, a member of Ukraine’s 80th Air Assault Brigade, at a mortar position, describing his experiences along the front.
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The brigade fired seven mortars from that position, while small arms fire could also be heard in the distance.
The release of the Pentagon video came a day after U.S. and Russian defence ministers and military chiefs held phone conversations over the incident that saw the MQ-9 Reaper drone crash into the sea while on a reconnaissance mission in international airspace.
In the roughly 40-second video, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet comes very close to the U.S. drone and dumps what U.S. officials say was jet fuel near it in an apparent effort to damage the American aircraft as it flew over the Black Sea.
It also shows the loss of the video feed after a second pass by a Russian jet, which the Pentagon says resulted from its collision with the drone. The video ends with images of the drone’s damaged propeller, which the Pentagon says resulted from the collision, making the aircraft inoperable.
Russia has denied any collision and said the drone crashed after making “sharp manoeuvres”, having “provocatively” flown close to Russian air space near Crimea.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Wednesday it was clear that the intercept and harassment of the drone by Russian jets was intentional, but it was unclear whether the Russian pilots meant to slam their aircraft into the drone – a move that could also put them at risk.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin that U.S. drone flights near Crimea’s coast “were provocative in nature” and could lead to “an escalation… in the Black Sea zone,” a ministry statement said.
Russia, the statement said, has “no interest” in escalation “but will in future react in due proportion” and the two countries should “act with a maximum of responsibility”, including by having military lines of communication in a crisis.
Russia has said the episode showed Washington was directly participating in the Ukraine war, something the West has taken pains to avoid.
The United States has supported Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in military aid but says its troops have not become directly engaged in the war, which Moscow portrays as a conflict against the combined might of the West.
Poland said on Thursday it would send four MiG-29 fighter jets to neighbouring Ukraine in coming days, making it the first of Kyiv’s allies to provide such aircraft.
In eastern Ukraine, the Russian-installed leader of the Donetsk region said on Thursday the situation around Bakhmut remained “complex and difficult” as Kyiv refused to withdraw its forces.
“That is, we do not see that there is any premise that the enemy is going to simply withdraw units,” Denis Pushilin said in an interview on state TV.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said this week his military top brass had advised reinforcing Bakhmut.
Kyiv had appeared last month to be preparing to pull out of the city but has since decided to defend it, saying it is exhausting Russia’s attacking force there to pave the way for its own counter-attack.
In its daily intelligence update on the Ukraine war, Britain’s defence ministry said Russian attempts to capture the town of Vuhledar, about 150 km (93 miles) southwest of Bakhmut, had “almost certainly slowed” after repeated, very costly failed attacks over the last three months.
Russia has committed wide-ranging war crimes in Ukraine such as wilful killings, torture and the deportation of children, a U.N.-mandated investigative body said in a report published on Thursday. Moscow denies committing atrocities in Ukraine.
The report, based on more than 500 interviews as well as satellite images and visits to detention sites and graves, comes as the International Criminal Court in The Hague is expected to seek the arrest of Russian officials for forcibly deporting children from Ukraine and targeting civilian infrastructure.
The war has resulted in the destruction of Ukrainian towns and cities, the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the flight of millions from their homes. It has also rocked the global economy, pushing up energy and food prices.
President Vladimir Putin, meeting members of Russia’s business elite on Thursday for the first time since the invasion, urged them to invest in their country to help it weather what he called the West’s “sanctions war”.
Many of those attending the meeting are themselves under Western sanctions because of what Putin calls Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Cynthia Osterman, Lincoln Feast and Gareth Jones; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Frank Jack Daniel
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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