Russian pilots who chased US Air Force drone given awards
Two Russian military pilots, who were involved in an encounter with a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone that ended with it plunging into the Black Sea earlier this month, were awarded with state decorations during a ceremony on Wednesday.
Major Vasiliy Vavilov and Major Sergey Popov, who were previously not identified by the Russian Defence Ministry, were both presented with an Order of Courage by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. The ceremony was held to honor several Russian service members for their accomplishments.
The pilots “prevented a violation by the US MQ-9 drone of the border of a zone of the temporary regime for [the restricted] use of airspace established for the special military operation” in Ukraine, the ministry explained.
The incident occurred last week, and resulted in the US and Russia trading accusations. The Pentagon claimed Russian pilots engaged in reckless flying in international airspace and that one of them clipped the propeller of the unmanned aircraft, causing it to go down.
The US released footage purportedly shot by the drone, showing a Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jet buzzing over it and apparently ejecting fuel in the process. The US military stressed the environmental impact allegedly caused by the incident.
Russia denied hitting the drone or using weapons against it, and said the US aircraft was flying with its transponder switched off in a no-go zone declared by the Russian military.
Anatoly Antonov, Moscow’s ambassador in Wasington, suggested that a potentially armed NATO drone “had no business” flying near the Russian border.
Vavilov, one of the pilots, described his actions as “maneuvers aimed at forcing it to abandon its mission,” when speaking during a media interview on the sidelines of Wednesday’s ceremony.
The Order of Courage is a prestigious decoration, but not exclusive to military personnel or even to Russian nationals. For example, NASA astronaut Nick Hague was given the award for his actions during the launch of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft in 2018.
The lift-off was aborted due to a booster failure, which triggered the launch escape system to kick in. Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin, who was the second person on board, was honored in the same way.