Russia has revealed the identities of two Su-27 pilots it says were involved in the downing of an American MQ-9 Reaper drone flying near Crimea.
The pair Sergey Popov and Vasily Vavilov, both air force majors, were handed state awards by Vladimir Putin ’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu.
The unarmed US MQ-9 Reaper had its tail propeller struck by the Russian warplane, which had earlier discharged fuel on the unmanned flyer.
The West views the interception as illegal, while Russia is portraying the pilots as heroes.
America branded the incident - a "brazen violation of international law”, blaming the Russians for "an unsafe and unprofessional intercept”.
However, the pilots were awarded Orders of Courage, an honour handed to many participants in the war unleashed by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.
Major Sergey Popov, a married father of two daughters, said: “We were on combat air defence duty on 14 March.
“When an ‘air’ command came, two crews took off. We figured out it was a Reaper MQ-9 drone. We passed this information to the command post. And next we were performing manoeuvres intended to stop it [the drone] from fulfilling its task.
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“We didn’t use ammunition, and didn’t touch the drone.”
The other pilot Major Vasily Vavilov said: “We were on combat air defence duty when we received an order to take off. Two crews flew to intercept a drone which was flying with the purpose of violating the [Russian] state border.
“We flew close to the drone, identified it, and then performed manoeuvres to force it not to carry out its duty.
“I am incredibly proud to be given such a high award, but as well it belongs to my colleague who ensured [the success of] this flight.”
Russia said the incident was in an area close to annexed Crimea in which it had closed the air space.
Officially Moscow said the incident was a “provocation”.
Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said: ”The aircraft was flying with its transponders off, and it entered the zone of the special military operation.
“It [the information about the zone] was made public via international channels.
“We, Russia, have warned everyone about it. I think this was a real provocation.”
The West does not accept the zone as demarcated by the Russians.
The envoy alleged: ”They provoked us to take a certain action, which would allow them to accuse Russia and the Russian military of being non-professional.”
He went on to claim: "I would like to stress that Russian pilots acted in a very professional manner.
“There was no contact, no use of weapons on the part of our fighter jets.”
In the wake of the incident, the Russians announced a search for the Reaper drone which fell into the Black Sea.
The Russian defence ministry said: "As a result of sharp manoeuvring, the MQ-9 drone went into an unguided flight with loss of altitude and collided with the water surface.”