The US Navy is pushing back against Moscow’s claims that one of its warships “expelled” the USS John S. McCain from Peter the Great Bay in the Sea of Japan on Tuesday.
“The Russian Federation’s statement about this mission is false,” Cmdr. Reann Mommsen, 7th Fleet spokesperson, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
“USS John S. McCain was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory,” Mommsen said. “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 USS John S. McCain sailed into Peter the Great Bay in the Sea of Japan during a freedom of navigation operation on Tuesday. Mommsen said the move was meant to challenge illegal Russian territorial claims, which date back to the Cold War.
“McCain conducted this [freedom of navigation operation] in accordance with international law and continued to conduct normal operations in international waters,” Mommsen said. “The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense said its Pacific Fleet dispatched a warship to intercept the USS John S. McCain, claiming the American Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer had violated Russian territorial waters by some 2 kilometers. The Admiral Vinogradov, a Russian anti-submarine destroyer, sent “verbal warnings” and threatened to “ram” the McCain, the Russian Ministry of Defense said in a Tuesday statement.
“The Pacific Fleet’s Admiral Vinogradov anti-submarine destroyer used an international communication channel to warn the foreign vessel that such actions were unacceptable and the violator could be forced out of the country’s territorial waters in a ramming maneuver. After the warning was issued and the Admiral Vinogradov changed its course, the USS John S. McCain destroyer returned to international waters,” Russia’s Ministry of Defense said.
According to Moscow, the Vinogradov continues to monitor the McCain. Russia’s Pacific Fleet has also reportedly dispatched a corvette, the Sovershenny, to monitor the American destroyer.
“As is generally the case, the Russians are lying,” said Stephen Blank, senior expert for Russia at the US Institute of Peace. “Russia is probably posturing but clearly is anxious.”
The USS John S. McCain is based at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.
Tuesday’s freedom of navigation operation was the first American challenge to Russia’s claims in Peter the Great Bay since December 2018, the Navy said.
Russia’s naval response on Tuesday was “slightly” more aggressive than in 2018, and was probably meant for public relations posturing, said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Kennan Institute.
“They are [posturing], and they have to, given they claim this as their territorial waters,” Kofman told Coffee or Die Magazine, regarding Russia’s part in Tuesday’s naval encounter.
“Some aspects are very much fleet and captain dependent,” Kofman continued. “[The Russian navy] may feel more leeway out in the Pacific. In the Cold War there were plenty of shouldering incidents and intentional ramming. In some respects, current interactions with the Russian navy, as unsafe as they are, are relatively tame compared to some of the incidents at sea which took place back then. I suspect in this scenario this kind of interaction is rather unlikely, and it is far more probable in the Black or Baltic Sea than it is in the Pacific.”
Also known as Peter the Great Gulf, Peter the Great Bay is the largest gulf in the Sea of Japan. The body of water extends from Russia’s border with North Korea and encompasses the waters offshore of Vladivostok, the port city where Russia’s Pacific Fleet is headquartered.
In a Tuesday statement, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet said that Soviet territorial claims to portions of Peter the Great Bay in 1984 violated the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. Following the Soviet Union’s 1991 breakup, Moscow has maintained its Cold War claims to Peter the Great Bay, unjustly limiting the freedom of navigation rights of other nations under international maritime law, the US Navy said.
“By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are not Russia’s territorial sea and that the United States does not acquiesce in Russia’s claim that Peter the Great is a ‘historic bay’ under international law,” the US 7th Fleet said in the statement, adding: “The United States will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all.”
BREAKING: 🇺🇸 #USSDonaldCook DDG 75 began their straits transit into the #BlackSea, marking the 7th time a @USNavy warship has been in the Black Sea Region. #USNavy ships regularly patrol in these waters in support of our @NATO Allies & partners 🇹🇷 🇺🇦 🇧🇬 🇷🇴 🇬🇪!#PowerForPeace pic.twitter.com/8QMEWoL2V0
— U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet (@USNavyEurope) November 23, 2020
The US Navy routinely conducts freedom of navigation missions in the Indo-Pacific region, sometimes skirting atolls and islands in the South China Sea over which China has claimed ownership. The US Navy’s operations are intended to assert the ability of vessels under any nation’s flag to lawfully traverse through recognized international waterways.
“It’s not clear what [the US Pacific Fleet] is trying to accomplish here,” Kofman said of the USS John S. McCain’s Tuesday operation in Peter the Great Bay. “Engaging in military activity that helps drive Russia and China closer together in the Pacific is unhelpful. Strategy is about choices, and the decision to do a [freedom of navigation operation] should always be weighed against the potential adverse effects, and unintended consequences. Either way, I’m skeptical the US is going to win the battle of the narrative on this one.”
On Tuesday, the USS Donald Cook, another Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, entered the Black Sea — marking the seventh visit by a US warship this year to that body of water.
Since Russia invaded and seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, the Black Sea has emerged as a geopolitical hotspot, pitting NATO and Russian forces against each other in a tit-for-tat exchange of dueling exercises and patrols, reminiscent of the Cold War era.
“Operating in the Black Sea signifies our commitment to partners and allies in the region,” Cmdr. Kelley Jones, commanding officer of the USS Donald Cook, said in a statement.