Russia may have acted aggressively and deliberately in forcing a U.S. surveillance drone to be ditched into the Black Sea, but these moves did not constitute an act of war, will not deter missions and will not lead to U.S. military escorts of future drone flights, top White House national security spokesman John Kirby told CBS News.
“This was a deliberate, aggressive, overly aggressive move by this pilot,” Kirby told CBS News on this week’s episode of “The Takeout.”
Kirby spoke shortly after the Pentagon had released video of a Russian pilot’s efforts to shower the drone with aviation fuel and a subsequent mid-air collision. The video confirmed Pentagon descriptions of the incident and undercut Russian assertions the drone was flying in an unstable manner.
“What’s not clear in the video is whether the pilot intended to strike the drone or just it was poor flying,” Kirby said. “I don’t think I would call it an act of war. It was unsafe. It was unprofessional. But look, nobody wants to see this war escalate between the United States and Russia to make it become a war between the United States and Russia.”
Kirby said if the Russians recover the MQ-9 Reaper drone from the Black Sea, it would yield almost nothing of value.
“They won’t find anything of any intrinsic value, I can assure you of that,” Kirby said. “We took steps to mitigate any intelligence collection capability. Whatever would be left on the surface would likely be….pieces of wings or the fuselage. Doubtful that’s going to be of any value to anybody. In terms of intelligence… we are not concerned that they’re going to get anything of value. The water they’re in the Black Sea right there is 4,000 to 5,000 feet deep. Anything of value, the hardware on the drone, will have sunk. I find it very unlikely that they’re going to be able to recover anything like that.”
Kirby also dismissed the idea of military escort flights for surveillance drones over the Black Sea or any international air space near Ukraine. Kirby said the drones collect vital intelligence on Russian activities in and near Ukraine, which is then shared with Ukraine’s military.
“You put pilots up there escorting drones…there’s a little bit of redundancy there,” Kirby said. “Why would you need both an unmanned and a manned aircraft to do (aerial surveillance)? There’s a greater risk to our pilots and to the broader potential for escalation. These flights are important for our national security interests. They’re going to continue.”
Kirby also welcomed Poland’s decision to send at least four — and possibly up to 10 — MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine.
“It’s not a surprise,” Kirby said. “Poland has talked about this in the past. It’s up to them to decide how and when and what circumstances they’ll provide the jets. The additional air capabilities that those MiGs could provide…you can’t undercount that. That’s going to be helpful to them.”
But Poland’s decision will not influence U.S. policy on sending F-16 fighters, Kirby said.
“He’s not considering F-16s for now,” Kirby said, referring to President Biden. “We don’t believe that that’s a decision that we need to make right now or that we even should make right now.” Instead, according to Kirby, the White House is analyzing what Ukraine needs in terms of artillery, ammunition, air defense and armored vehicle.
“When you look in the weeks ahead, the kind of fighting that the Ukrainians say they believe they’re going to be in is fighting an open terrain,” he told CBS News. “What they need are what the Pentagon calls combined arms warfare ability, combined arms maneuver.”
Kirby said the U.S. does not know who blew up parts of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and will await European investigations into the matter, and he stated emphatically that the U.S. was not involved.
“We don’t know who did it,” Kirby said. “There are three investigations going on by three of our European partners. We’re not going to get ahead of what they find. The United States government had no role whatsoever in what happened to the Nord Stream 2. We do believe it was an act of sabotage. But I can absolutely, positively assure you that the United States had no role in it.”
Kirby also said White House procedures have not changed in the handling classified documents, in the wake of the discovery of documents with classified markings – some more sensitive than others – in the possession of former President Trump, Mr. Biden and former Vice President Pence.
“Same procedures,” Kirby said. “They’re time tested, well-worn and understood by everybody that works at the National Security Council and the White House. There’s been no review, no change in procedures. They’re not just procedures that we use at the White House. They’re procedures that you use across the government. There’s no need to revisit (them).”
Executive producer: Arden Farhi
Producers: Jamie Benson, Jacob Rosen, Sara Cook and Eleanor Watson
CBSN Production: Eric Soussanin
Show email: TakeoutPodcast@cbsnews.com