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US-Russia relations sank to a new low as the sparring nations became embroiled in a fresh row after an American drone was downed over the Black Sea. Washington claimed the state-of-the-art drone would not provide their Russian rivals with any intelligence as it emerged a recovery operation in Moscow to locate the device was underway.

Alan Diehl, a former US government whistleblower and aviation safety expert, told the downed MQ-9 Reaper drone could hold a vital key in the next stages of Russia‘s ongoing conflict with Ukraine, and the West.

The drone crashed into the water off Snake Island, near the Danube Delta, Ukraine said, in waters that were as deep as 1,500 metres (5,000 feet), making recovery of the Reaper difficult.

The moment the Russian Su-27 fighter jet intercepted the drone, causing it to crash, also marked the “first direct contact” between the two countries’ air forces since the Cold War, with the US Air Force claiming Russia‘s actions had been “reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional”.

And according to Alan Diehl, who has worked with the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration, the Pentagon and the State Department, the flexing of muscles by Russia in taking down the drone was reminiscent of similar conflicts, including the Vietnam War.

Speaking to from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Dr Diehl said the Kremlin seemingly “ordered the attack on the Reaper knowing that it was operating in international waters over the Black Sea”.

He continued: “The real objective of this provocative action may be to convince America and NATO that Russia is prepared for a protracted conflict in Ukraine. The Kremlin knows such tactics worked in the past — in places like Vietnam.

“Of course, the People’s Republic of China is also closely watching the Western public and governmental reaction to this incident because of their expansion designs, especially regarding Taiwan.”

The US itself has remained cool over Russia‘s move to retrieve the drone, which costs around $32million (£26.5m) and any data that may remain on it.

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon conference Washington would “work through recovery operations” as the drone was “US property”. However, he expected it to “probably be broke up… there’s not a lot to recover frankly”.

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He added: “As far as the loss of anything of sensitive intelligence, etc … we would take — and we did take — mitigating measures. So we’re quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value.”

The head of Russia‘s foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, said while the US may struggle to locate the device, the Kremlin had the capacity and technology to recover fragments of the drone, which he believed was off the west of Crimea.

Dr Diehl felt that behind Russia‘s desire to hunt down the drone mirrored a similar episode when China attempted to locate a USN EP-3 spy plane it rammed down more than two decades ago, fueling further tension between the East and West.

On that occasion, the USN EP-3 plummeted down into the international waters of the South China Sea, and the “badly damaged Navy aircraft was forced to land on Hainan Island, where its crew was temporally detained while Chinese personnel examined the classified equipment aboard the disabled aircraft”, the insider continued.

Dr Diehl concluded: “Another motivation for the Kremlin targeting this UAV may be earlier suggestions that NATO supply MQ-9s to the Ukrainians. Furthermore, it appears that the Russians will attempt to recover the wreckage to gather information about the onboard equipment, much like the Chinese did with the damaged USN EP-3.

“If the Russians are able to recover and analyse the MQ–9’s equipment, it might be useful to counter these threats should the West give such weapons to the Ukrainians.”

The collision earlier this week saw observers believe direct confrontation between the two global powerhouses become more and more inevitable.

In a statement, the US described how the drone was “conducting a routine operation in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9”.

The rival Su-27 jet of Russia reportedly attempted to drench the drone in fuel prior to the crash.

In Washington, Anatoly Antonov, Russia‘s ambassador, was brought in for lengthy discussions over the affair, in what the US declared was a “provocation” by Moscow.

Reaction to the strike saw Moscow’s Security Council Secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, lament the US, arguing it showed how Washington was truly in the fight to protect Ukraine from the ongoing war with Russia.

He told the Rossiya-1 TV channel: “I don’t know whether we will be able to retrieve it or not but it has to be done. And we’ll certainly work on it. I hope, of course, successfully.”

Patrushev added: “This is another confirmation that they are directly involved in these actions, in the war.”