Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 17 March 2023


Replying to Russia’s Drone Provocation

The best response is to send long-range missiles to Ukraine.

WSJ Opinion: Responding to Russia's U.S. Drone Provocation
WSJ Opinion: Responding to Russia's U.S. Drone Provocation
Review and Outlook: The best response to Russia's attack on a U.S. drone is to send Ukraine long-range missiles. Images: AP/Dept. of Defense Composite: Mark Kelly

The Pentagon on Thursday released footage of a Russian fighter jet that harassed, dumped fuel on and then collided this week with an American reconnaissance drone. The provocation warrants a U.S. response, and the right one is giving the Ukrainians the sophisticated and long-range weapons they need to defeat Vladimir Putin’s military.



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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday that it wasn’t clear whether the Russians intended to ram the MQ-9 drone’s propeller; the U.S. was forced to bring down the drone in the Black Sea. But a collision was a risk Russia accepted when its pilots dumped fuel in what the Pentagon calls an “unprofessional” intercept. Gen. Milley noted that the “very aggressive” episode fits “a pattern” of behavior by the Russians.

Some are warning that the episode shows the risk of U.S. war with Russia and is a reason to abandon Ukraine. But the drone was operating in international air space, and Mr. Putin wants to make the Black Sea his private pond. Russia could escalate, but the moment is clarifying that Mr. Putin is the aggressor and his designs aren’t limited to Ukraine.

The Biden Administration has been calibrating its Ukraine policy based on its own anxiety about Mr. Putin’s reaction, but this crash is the latest reminder that Mr. Putin takes whatever risks he thinks he can get away with.


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President Biden now has more reason to do what he could have done long ago: Give Ukraine the weapons needed to win. Priority No. 1 is the Army tactical missile system, which would allow strikes deeper into Russian positions in Ukraine to gain momentum on the ground.

Another worthy platform for Ukraine is, as it happens, the MQ-9. One reason the Biden Administration hasn’t offered the drone is fears that the Russians might pilfer the technology. The Russians are now threatening to fish the crashed drone from the Black Sea, though Gen. Milley says the U.S. took “mitigating measures”—presumably wiping the hard drive of the drone—and that any remnants won’t be of value.

That suggests the risks of offering the MQ-9 to Ukraine are manageable and outweighed by the benefits of a platform that can stay aloft more than a day and conduct reconnaissance over long distances.

Mr. Biden may prefer to let the moment pass and herald his own restraint, but he won’t like the decisions he will be forced to make if Russia escalates and downs a plane manned by U.S. military pilots.

Russia isn’t the only adversary testing what the U.S. will tolerate. Beijing has been harassing American assets in the Pacific, with a Chinese fighter jet coming within 20 feet of a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane in December. If the world seems volatile now, it will be more so if America’s enemies feel empowered to provoke the U.S. without fear of a response.

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