Did U.S. and Russian Naval Warships Nearly Collided in the Pacific?
Russia’s Ministry of Defense on Friday released video of a close encounter between Russian and US warships in the Sea of Japan, alleging that the Russian ship drove the US destroyer away after it attempted to enter Russian territorial waters.
The US Navy disputed that version of events on Friday evening, saying that Chafee was in international waters and the interaction was safe and professional.
The video shows the US Navy destroyer USS Chafee sailing in the Sea of Japan just a few hundred feet from the Russian destroyer Admiral Tributs. Chafee was sailing with a helicopter on its aft landing pad with its rotors running.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that around 5 p.m. local time the US ship “approached the territorial waters of the Russian Federation and attempted to cross the national border,” at which point Admiral Tributs “warned” Chafee “about the inadmissibility of such actions” and notified it that the area was closed to navigation because of artillery fire taking place during a Russian-Chinese naval exercise this week.
The Russian statement said Chafee continued sailing, raising flags to indicate it was preparing to launch its helicopter, meaning it couldn’t change course or speed.
The Russian ship then “set a course for ousting” the US ship, Russia said. Chafee eventually changed course when the two ships were about 200 feet from each other, according to the Russian statement, which criticized what it called “a flagrant violation” of international rules for avoiding collisions at sea and a 1972 bilateral agreement to prevent incidents at sea and in the air.
In a statement issued early on Friday evening, the US Navy called Russia’s statement about the interaction “false.”
The Russian ship came within about 65 yards of Chafee as it prepared for flight operations while sailing in international waters, the Navy said, adding that the “interaction was safe and professional” and that the notice about the exercise was not in effect at the time.
“At all times, USS Chafee conducted operations in accordance with international law and custom. The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate where international law allows,” the Navy said.
Not the first close encounter
Such encounters between US and Russian warships are not unheard of, and the two sides often dispute what transpires.
In November 2020, the destroyer USS John S. McCain conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation near Peter the Great Bay in a challenge to what the US deems excessive Russian maritime claims. Russia said one of its destroyers was sent to drive the US ship away, issuing a warning and a threat to use “a ramming maneuver,” after which the US ship returned to international waters.
But the US Navy rejected that version of events. It called the Russian statement “false” and denied that the US ship had been “expelled,” saying the operation was conducted “in accordance with international law.”
The US, its NATO partners, and Russia frequently accuse each other of provocative actions at sea. This summer, the Russian military said it fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British destroyer sailing near Crimea, waters that Russia has claimed since seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The UK rejected Russia’s account, calling it “disinformation.” The British Ministry of Defense said at the time that the warship, HMS Defender, was “conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.”
The incident on Friday comes a day after Russia and China began a joint naval exercise, called Joint Sea 2021, in the same area. The exercise will run through Sunday and include communications, joint maneuvering, firing on targets at sea, and anti-mine, anti-air, and anti-submarine operations, according to Chinese state media.
The Russian and Chinese militaries have expanded their military cooperation, including through joint exercises, in recent years. Their bombers have twice conducted joint patrols over the Sea of Japan, alarming neighboring countries.
US military leaders have called that cooperation “superficial,” though Western countries still view it with concern.
Christopher Woody writes and edits stories on military issues, defense policy, and foreign affairs for Insider. He is based in Washington, DC.