Three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence said the highest levels of the Kremlin approved the aggressive actions of Russian military fighter jets against a U.S. military drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday.
The Russian jets dropped jet fuel on the MQ- 9 Reaper, an unprecedented action, and two of the officials said the intelligence suggests the intent was to throw the drone off course or disable its surveillance capabilities.
One of the officials said that Russian leadership was intent to be aggressive in the intercept.
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One official said he had not gotten any indications that the signoff went up to Putin. Other officials didn't give any specifics beyond the highest levels. The Russian jet clipping the propeller of the drone, which the U.S. says occurred and Russia denies, was likely not intentional, said the officials, who believe it was pilot error, based on U.S. video of the incident.
Three defense officials and a Biden administration official said the Russians had already reached the area where the MQ 9 Reaper crashed. Russians are actively looking for debris with ships and aircraft, but the U.S. hasn't seen any indication that they've been able to recover any of it, officials said. One official said much of the debris sank into the Black Sea.
The three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence said that the U.S. is unlikely to try to recover the remnants of the crashed drone.
At a news conference on Wednesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, said there was probably not a lot of debris to recover and noted that part of the Black Sea where the drone landed is as much as 5,000 feet deep.
He stated that the U.S. took steps to disable software on the drone, so the Russians wouldn't be able to glean any sensitive information from it if they were to recover pieces of it.
John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, said in an interview with NBC News that the Russians were deliberately trying to get close to the drone.
Kirby said that we don't know how intentional the collision with the drone was. It is possible that this was just a reckless, incompetent piece of aviation by the pilot. A spokesman for the National Security Council pointed out previous comments by Kirby, Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in lieu of additional comment.
The U.S. said the drone was flying in international airspace over international waters. Russia has warned the U.S. not to come so close to its borders.
Milley said the incident is part of a pattern of behavior by Russia that has recently gotten more aggressive.