WASHINGTON: The Pentagon released a de-classified video on Thursday (Mar 16) showing a Russian military jet intercepting a US 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 showed Russia was behaving irresponsibly in international airspace, while Moscow accused 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 roughly 1.5km from the front lines could hear the constant boom of incoming and outgoing artillery and the crackle of small arms fire.
The months-long fight for Bakhmut has become Europe's bloodiest infantry battle since WWII. Russian forces led by the Wagner private army have captured the city's eastern part but have so far failed to encircle it.
"The situation is quite difficult, but stable," said Myron, a soldier in the Ukrainian 80th Air Assault Brigade who declined to give his full name.
"The enemy constantly attempts to attack us, and we defend our positions quite effectively," the 37-year-old told Reuters in an underground bunker at the end of a zig-zag trench where the mortar unit sleeps, eats and stays warm.
"We've been standing here for quite a long time already, and our brigade hasn't given up any positions."
Moscow says taking Bakhmut would be a major success, opening a path to capture the rest of the surrounding Donetsk region, one of its central war aims.
Kyiv says it has decided not to pull out because it is inflicting huge losses on the Russian assault force which will make it easier to stage a counterattack later this year. "They (the Russians) need this victory like air and therefore do not count the losses," Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for Ukraine's eastern military command, told Ukrainian television.
The release of the Pentagon video came a day after US 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.
The Pentagon said later it had indications Russia was trying to recover debris from the downed drone.
In the roughly 40-second video, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet comes very close to the US drone and dumps what US officials say was jet fuel near it in an apparent effort to damage the 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 the collision with the drone.
The video does not show the Russian jet striking the drone. It 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 took place and said the drone crashed after making "sharp manoeuvres", having "provocatively" flown close to Russian air space near Crimea.
Moscow has said the episode showed Washington was directly participating in the Ukraine war.
The White House said the footage showed Russia was lying about what happened.
"It's pretty darn obvious when you look at that video that fighter jet hit our drone," White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.
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.
China said it was concerned about an escalation of the war, and hoped Moscow and Kyiv would hold peace talks.
Beijing, which has refrained from condemning Russia for its invasion, has urged both sides to agree to a gradual de-escalation leading to a comprehensive ceasefire in its 12-point paper on the "political resolution of the Ukraine crisis".
"China hopes that all parties will remain calm, rational and restrained, and resume peace talks as soon as possible," senior Chinese diplomat Qin Gang told Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in a phone call on Thursday, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement.
WAR CRIMES ALLEGATIONS
As the war ground on in eastern Ukraine, a UN-mandated investigative body said Russian forces had committed wide-ranging war crimes in Ukraine such as wilful killings and torture, in some cases making children watch loved ones being raped and detaining others alongside dead bodies.
The alleged crimes, including the deportation of children, were detailed in a report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, which said some acts may amount to crimes against humanity.
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.
At her weekly press briefing, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters that Moscow regularly heard such accusations.
She added that if those behind such reports supported objectivity "then we are ready to analyse specific cases, answer questions, provide data, statistics and facts. But if they are biased, if they represent only one point of view ... then there is no use responding to these reports."
Russia denies committing atrocities or attacking civilians in Ukraine.
The war has destroyed Ukrainian towns and cities, killed tens of thousands of people and forced millions to flee 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".