Drone MoscowBefore the name became synonymous with an earnest rock band whose ideological offspring have emasculated the genre beyond saving, U2 equated with a US spy plane of the original Cold War era. U2 went from being a mundane military term to a global buzzword in 1960 when the aircraft flown by American pilot Gary Powers was shot down in Soviet airspace during a clandestine surveillance mission. The plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile and the American authorities initially insisted the plane wasn’t a plane but was actually a weather research aircraft – perhaps a bit like those Chinese balloons spotted over the US a month or so ago. However, in one of the great propaganda coups of the period, the Russians paraded Powers (who had parachuted to safety) before the cameras and produced the aerial photographs of military bases the pilot had been dispatched to snap. An embarrassed America was forced to come clean just weeks before President Eisenhower was scheduled to meet Soviet Premier Khrushchev (a summit meeting which was cancelled as a consequence), despite rightly pointing out their tactics were hardly unique at the time – and indeed proved priceless when it came to Cuba a couple of years later; Powers was tried, found guilty of espionage and received a characteristically harsh seven-year sentence before returning home via a prisoner exchange in 1962.

Over half-a-century later, manned missions are no longer necessary for that kind of work, but even their automated successors can run into trouble. Aided by the conflict in Ukraine, relations between the US and Russia are arguably at their lowest level since the days when Gary Powers took his ill-fated flight, and yesterday an American MQ-9 Reaper drone – a small surveillance aircraft – had a too-close encounter with a Russian fighter jet and was last seen plunging into the Black Sea. As is traditional, both sides offer different explanations for the incident and both see the collision as an act of provocation by the other party. A statement from the Pentagon said ‘Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and a complete loss of the MQ-9’, before adding the alleged Russian actions could lead to ‘miscalculation and unintended escalation’. Well, that’s something else to help you sleep better at night innit.

The Black Sea itself has been what one might call ‘a hot spot’ since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, but the invasion of Ukraine last year has seen an increase in surveillance jaunts over the area; whilst US and UK aircraft hovering around the region have officially remained in international airspace, there’s always the understandable suspicion the odd plane sneaks ‘behind enemy lines’. Russian aircraft are hardly noted for scrupulously observing the rules when it comes to the airspace of a sovereign nation, so it wouldn’t be a great stretch of the imagination to envisage Western aircraft doing likewise. The incident that occurred yesterday was clearly viewed by Washington as deliberate rather than an accident, which implies that if the drone remained in international airspace at the time of the collision, this was indeed the Russians overstepping the mark. This perspective certainly holds sway in the US, resulting in the Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov being summoned to provide an explanation; back home in Moscow, however, the state media regarded the presence of the drone as ‘a provocation’. Tit for tat, then.

The Pentagon claims the ‘unsafe, unprofessional’ actions on the part of the Russian aircraft consisted of dumping fuel in the flight path of the drone in a ‘reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner’, followed by a collision with it that eventually caused it to fall to earth. According to the National Security Council, this incident wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it was the most significant to date in terms of damage done. The US didn’t reveal the precise location where the drone landed or if the Russian Navy had embarked on a search for it, but the notion of such sensitive equipment falling into enemy hands is naturally undesirable; it would seem the US used remote pilots to ensure the drone splashed down somewhere in the Black Sea following the collision, which was probably the safest option given the delicate situation, though that doesn’t necessarily mean its secrets are secure on the sea bed. The support being given to Ukraine by the West isn’t limited to providing military hardware, but military intelligence; Kyiv has become dependent on the findings of Western surveillance drones revealing everything from the launching of missiles to the movement of Russian vessels in the Black Sea. It goes without saying that this information going astray wouldn’t help the Ukrainian cause.

Russia, on its part, has demanded the US cease what it refers to as ‘hostile flights’ into Russian airspace; the same Ambassador who was called to provide an explanation for his nation’s actions yesterday, Anatoly Antonov, was prompted to say, ‘We presume the United States will refrain from further speculation in the media space and will stop flying near Russian borders’. There have certainly been some fairly unambiguous indications via Russian state media that the remains of the drone are being actively sought by Russian authorities, though the White House’s spokesman John Kirby has insisted the likelihood of it being recovered – by either side – seems fairly slim. ‘I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to recover it,’ he said. ‘Where it fell into the Black Sea – very, very deep water; so we’re still assessing whether there can be any kind of recovery effort. There may not be.’ Mr Kirby then did his best to affirm that any information the drone contained wouldn’t be much use to Moscow anyway – ‘We did the best we could to minimise any intelligence value that might come from somebody else getting their hands on that drone,’ he added. Two lines from the old Megadeth song, ‘Hanger 18’ now spring to mind – ‘Military intelligence/two words combined that don’t make sense’; Thrash Metal, not known for its profound observations, occasionally delivers the goods.

This incident is clearly not on the same propaganda level as the U2 affair of 1960; for one thing, there is no all-American boy to present as evidence and (as yet) no drone to produce as the next best thing. But it does perhaps highlight yet again the tensions along an international fault-line between East and West that appears as wobbly today as it was 60 years ago. Events in Ukraine and Putin’s persecution complex have combined to create a climate of suspicion and mutual mistrust that has a distinctly chilly whiff of Cold War air about it, with the Kremlin declaring that relations with the US are in a ‘lamentable state’ on the same day that RAF and German fighter jets intercepted a Russian aircraft drifting into Estonian airspace on behalf of NATO. Indeed, sometimes it feels like the Berlin Wall never fell after all.

I suppose a key difference re the West on our rebooted Cold War front is the notable lack of pro-Russian sympathies on this side of the divide. First time round, there were strong Soviet leanings on the Left that ran all the way from university campuses to the grubby backrooms of Trades Union branches; the same attitudes that had turned a blind eye to Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and were strengthened by our alliance with the USSR against Nazi Germany during WWII held firm that Communism was the only alternative to capitalism’s iniquities; even events in Hungary and Czechoslovakia couldn’t shake that conviction. Today, the sole Russians the West courts are exiled oligarchs whilst Putin’s regime is viewed as akin to Hitler’s by all but a few scattered apologists; the popular cause is Ukraine, and Russia is regarded very much as the evil aggressor. A superior state of affairs to those in the past, perhaps; but still very black and white, still very Us and Them – which rarely bodes well for future international relations.

© The Editor





  1. I guess we would all be both surprised and disappointed if our Western military were not up to all the intelligence gathering tricks in the box just like their opposition, we pay them enough so they need to deliver the goods. The drone update of the old U2 is one of the more obvious channels, just as obvious to the opposition who mostly decide to leave them alone but, occasionally, take one out to make a point.

    The predictable huffing and puffing will occur, then it will soon all get back to business as usual – not unlike the old ‘Spy vs Spy vs Spy’ cartoon strip in Mad Magazine of the 1960s if you’re old enough to remember that, it was like Viz but without the coarseness.

    And meanwhile untold numbers of fleshware on both sides in Ukraine are paying the ultimate personal price of their leaders’ follies. A crashed drone’s just a bit of bent metal, all the individual Ukrainian and Russian dead can’t be put back together or replaced.

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    1. As an aside, the name Gary Powers always sounded to me like one of those tongue-in-cheek Bond rip-offs Hollywood indulged in during the 60s, like Our Man Flint or Matt Helm…


  2. Just because we are not looking favourably on Putin does not mean we support Biden.
    Ukraine did not suddenly stop being the most corrupt country in the world just because Putin sent some soldiers over its border.
    In a hundred years maybe the truth will come out. I wish I could read it.
    In the meantime sons, brothers, husbands, fathers are being sent to do battle and die on behalf of these two men. And the people who would benefit are safe in their bunkers contemplating another bonanza from a banking crisis.

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