Russian Military Latest: Another Russia-US naval confrontation

Rod Thornton and Marina Miron

This is the first in a regular series looking at news of the Russian military that comes predominantly from a review of the Russian media.

There has been a series of confrontations in recent months between Russian and US naval vessels. While nothing serious has resulted from these clashes, they do have the capacity to lead on to perhaps dire consequences. It seems apposite now, given their frequency, to look at them more closely – particularly from the Russian point of view.

On Tuesday of this week, the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS John S. McCain was involved in an incident in the Peter the Great Gulf (off Vladivostok) with the Russian destroyer, the Admiral Vinogradov. The American vessel had reportedly (and not denied by the US Navy) crossed some 2km into what Russia claims as its territorial waters. The John S. McCain was warned by the Vinogradov’s captain that his vessel would undertake a ‘ramming manoeuvre’ (tarannaya manevra) unless it left the area. The John S. McCain then duly did so. While a tense situation, the two vessels remained at some distance from each other throughout the engagement (see video).

The language used in the Russian media reports of this incident has been quite stark. The encroachment by the John S. McCain has generally been described as an ‘invasion ’ (vtorzhenie) and also as a ‘violation’ (narushenie) of Russian territory by the US Navy. The word, however, used most often is that it was a ‘provocation’. This fits into an ongoing Russian media narrative that consistently portrays the United States as an aggressive actor on the international stage and one which actually wants to escalate tensions with Moscow. One Russian member of parliament, Yelena Panina, called this incursion by the US destroyer ‘a provocation in which everything is significant, even the name “John McCain”, who was known as a strident Russophobe and a sworn enemy of Russia’. Thus the tale, as is often the case with Russian ‘narratives’, is crudely embellished. However, Ms Panina was slightly awry with her accusation. The vessel in question is not named after the late senator but rather after both his father and grandfather who were both admirals and who both, indeed, called John S. McCain.

This clash between the two vessels resulted from the US Navy conducting what it deemed a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP). It was felt that the John S. McCain had the right to enter the territorial waters claimed by Russia because Washington does not recognise this claim. As a US naval spokesperson put it, ‘the United States will never bow in intimidation or be coerced into accepting illegitimate maritime claims, such as those made by the Russian Federation’.

The Russians say their claim is not ‘illegitimate’. These waters were originally declared to be ‘Russian’ in 1984 by the Soviet Union when it redrew its eastern maritime borders. Rather than keeping to the international convention of laying claim merely to waters 22km from the shore (the baseline), Moscow drew a new series of straight lines from one headland to the next around its eastern coasts. This turned the waters of several large gulfs into Russian-claimed waters. Under the United Nations Law of the Sea, the baselines set up across any gulf should be no more than 44km in length. However, the one drawn across the Peter the Great Gulf off Vladivostok (home of Russia’s Pacific Fleet) ended up being some 106km long (see map in this article). The United States and other countries have always challenged the right of states to set up such gulf-based maritime borders with their extended baselines. This stance led, indeed, to two clashes with Libya in 1981 and 1989 in the Gulf of Sidra involving US Navy and Libyan aircraft. This was after the Ghaddafi regime had established a new maritime border across this gulf.

Russia, on the other hand, claims that the Peter the Great Gulf is an ‘historic body of water’ (Vladivostok being Russian territory since 1860) and that therefore its boundaries should not be subject to the UN Law of the Sea stipulations.

This is not the first time that the Vinogradov has been involved in a high-seas incident with a US Navy vessel. In June 2019, it came close to colliding with the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea. Pictures clearly show the aggressive manoeuvring of the Vinogradov. (see video here). However, after the incident a Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson blamed the American vessel since it, ‘suddenly changed direction and crossed the course of the Admiral Vinogradov 50 metres away…[and]…the crew of the Russian ship had to urgently manoeuvre to avoid a collision’.

In January of this year in the Arabian Sea, moreover, the Russian reconnaissance vessel (‘spy ship’) Ivan Khurs approached the Arleigh Burke-class USS Farragut in a similarly dangerous fashion – at speed from off the starboard stern quarter of the American vessel (see video). In relation to this incident, a Russian Navy spokesperson praised the actions of the Ivan Khurs ‘which made it possible to prevent a collision with the intruder ship’. ‘The US destroyer’, he went on, ‘acted provocatively in this situation’. One Russian report, indeed, referred to the ‘pranks’ of the American sailors. For good measure, the former captain of the Ivan Khurs decried the ‘inappropriate actions’ of the crew of the Farragut and noted that, ‘Drunken barmaids sometimes run the sea’. ‘You need to be ready for this’, he warned his fellow Russian mariners.

The Russian Navy spokesperson in this USS Farragut incident also explained why the Ivan Khurs was the innocent party. He made the point, and as stipulated in the Convention on the International Rules for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (1972), that in order to avoid such collisions during course crossings, it is the vessel that has the obstacle to its starboard that has to give way. In both the above cases (USS Chancellorsville and USS Farragut) this should, technically, have meant that the US vessel should have given way. In the case of the Ivan Khurs, it was stressed by the Russian side that ‘it was the US Navy destroyer, being to the left of the Russian warship moving ahead that grossly violated the international rules for preventing collisions of ships at sea by making a manoeuvre to cross its course’. (Although, for a rationality check, look at the above video). This Russian interpretation of the rules of the sea fits in very well with what both Moscow and Beijing see as an important element in their current ‘persistent competition’ with leading Western actors, such as the United States. They are employing what is known as ‘lawfare’ – the form of sub-threshold competition wherein both Russia and China seek to manipulate standing International Law to their own advantage and against the interests of the West.

But there does seem to be a pattern here. Russian vessels (even ‘spy ships’) are being used, it seems, to aggressively signal to the US Navy and, it may be assumed (and in however small a way), to the West more generally, that Russia has to be reckoned with: it will no longer accept being dictated to by Western actors and its interests on the world stage ignored (as they were during the Iraq wars and with Afghanistan). We may put this down to what has been called the Kremlin’s doctrine of ‘sovereign self-assertion’. According to its logic, Moscow will use every available means to show that it cannot, in its eyes, be ‘push around’ by the United States and its allies. Moscow’s recent aggressive actions in Syria, Crimea and eastern Ukraine obviously also to fit into this logic.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this latest naval incident in the Peter the Great Gulf, it will act to raise tensions yet further between Washington and Moscow. While the US Navy has the right to conduct FONOPs, it may be seen as particularly provocative to conduct one off a major Russian naval base. The Russian side was bound to respond – and to point out to the Russian people just how aggressive the United States was being (Washington having hoisted itself on its own information warfare petard here). But perhaps being ‘provocative’ is exactly how Washington and especially the US military now want to appear. In our current era of sub-threshold or grey-zone threats emanating from both Moscow and Beijing, and where Western powers are being put on the back foot, perhaps a little sabre-rattling in response might be just what is called for. The problem is that posturing of this nature may lead to incidents where lives are lost. High jinks on the high seas is one thing, provoking actual conflict where blood is shed is quite another.

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