Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Lindsey Graham: The Only Way to Avoid World War III Is to Start It

State of the Union: Tuesday’s collision between an unmanned U.S. drone and a Russian fighter jet has real escalatory potential. The hawks haven’t let a second go to waste.


The interventionists in Washington are sensing blood in the water, hoping that a recent development in the Ukraine conflict could pull the U.S. into direct military confrontation with Russia. There was no blood in the water, however; just metal and gears from an unmanned U.S. drone.

A MQ-9 Reaper drone took off from a base in Romania Tuesday morning for what would be its last reconnaissance mission, trolling international airspace at 25,000 feet to peer into Russian-controlled Crimea. As it headed towards the Russian border, the Reaper was intercepted by two Russian Su-27 fighter jets that employed bizarre and aggressive tactics to thwart the drone’s efforts. Eventually, the aggressive maneuvers from the Russian Su-27s led to a small collision with the drone, rendering it "unflyable” and “uncontrollable," according to Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder. Operators were forced to down the drone about seventy-five miles southwest of the Crimean Peninsula.


It’s not atypical for Russian jets to intercept U.S. aircraft flying so close to its airspace. Russian aircraft have intercepted U.S. and allied aircraft over the Black Sea and off the coast of Alaska in years past. These interceptions have become more common as the U.S. and its allies continue to provide Ukraine with military and security assistance in the war against Russia, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. Kirby said that almost all of these common interceptions have occurred without incident. The Tuesday incident, however, is drawing the eyes of the Biden administration and others in Washington not only because it resulted in the downing of an unmanned drone but because of the bizarre tactics employed by the Russian pilots, which Kirby called “unsafe and unprofessional.”

U.S. Europe Command claims that, “several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner.” Eventually, one of the jets collided with the drone, damaging the drone’s propeller and forcing the U.S. military to bring it down in the waters of the Black Sea. The Su-27 reportedly was not as badly damaged, and was able to land safely.

The Reaper, which can carry a missile payload, was reportedly unarmed. (Reapers are rarely used to carry out strikes because they lack good defense systems and are relatively slow, with a maximum speed of 275 miles per hour.) Once the Su-27s intercepted the Reaper, the fighter pilots reportedly flew tight circles around the drone for upwards of 30 minutes. Though they remain uncertain, U.S. officials’ best guess as to why the Russian jets repeatedly sprayed fuel on the Reaper was to damage the drone’s cameras and sensors. Military personnel observing the intercepts through the drone’s footage at Ramstein Air Base in Germany were shocked by the Russian pilots’ behavior.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin claimed, “This hazardous episode is part of a pattern of aggressive, risky, and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace.”

“Make no mistake," Austin continued, "The United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows; and it is incumbent upon Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner."


Russia's Ministry of Defense has denied any wrongdoing on the part of its pilots. In a statement, the Ministry said the Russian Air Force scrambled fighter jets to identify the drone, which allegedly had its identifying transponder off. After intercepting the drone, the Russians claim the Reaper maneuvered sharply and lost control, leading to the crash.

In response to the event, Gen. Ryder says the Defense Department is working to declassify the footage, hoping to vindicate the United States’ position. Furthermore, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the Russian ambassador had been summoned to receive a formal complaint from the U.S. over the incident, which Price said was a “brazen violation of international law.”

The collision has real escalatory potential. The interventionists know this, and haven’t let a second go to waste. 

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show last night and said the U.S. should shoot down Russian jets that intercept U.S. aircraft, manned or not. 

“We should hold them accountable and say that, ‘If you ever get near another U.S. asset flying in international waters, your airplane will be shot down,'” Graham claimed. Graham went on to employ the tactic that every Republican uses when trying to make a bad idea sound like a good idea: invoking the name of Ronald Reagan. “What would Ronald Reagan do right now? He would start shooting Russian planes down if they were threatening our assets.” Later, addressing Biden, Graham said, “If you don’t change your game and up your game, we’re going to have World War III.”

Graham’s big-brained idea is that the only way to avoid World War III is to start it? To state the obvious, killing Russian pilots would bring the U.S. into direct confrontation with Russia. The United States would effectively be at war with Russia, and when Russia responds, the U.S. will feign surprise and drag the rest of NATO into the conflict. Entangling alliances are back, and so would the great war that follows them.

Graham, the neocons, and the liberal interventionists may claim the foreign policy mantle of Reagan, but their knowledge only goes so far as “peace through strength” and the USSR is an “evil empire.” In reality, Reagan responded to acts much more reckless and violent than the downing of an unmanned drone with restraint. When the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983, killing all 269 people, including sixty-one Americans and one member of Congress, Reagan did not start striking Russian assets or shooting down Russian military planes. Rather, Reagan’s first instinct was, in his own words from a National Security Meeting, “to protect against overreaction. Vengeance isn’t the name of the game.”

Reagan would go on to reposition U.S. assets in Eastern Europe, revoked Aeroflot Soviet Airlines’ license to operate in the United States, and continued sanctioning the Soviet Union. Reagan sought prudent, non escalatory accountability to keep the Cold War just that—cold. 

He still sent Secretary of State George Shultz to a pre-scheduled summit meeting with Soviet Foreign Affairs Minister Andrei Gromyko, where Schulz panned the Soviets for their reckless actions. "Foreign Minister Gromyko's response to me today was even more unsatisfactory than the response he gave in public yesterday. I find it totally unacceptable,” Schulz said after the summit. Despite the summit’s poor outcome, Reagan was committed to keeping diplomatic channels open. And it was diplomacy, not nuclear-armed war, that brought an end to that “evil empire.”