Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Brinkmanship on the high seas: Russian, American and a message by warship

Analysis: The near collision by two warships in the open ocean is uncharacteristic but not altogether unusual

An image provided by the US Navy shows a Russian destroyer, left, very close to the USS Chancellorsville, right, while operating in the Pacific Ocean. US Navy via AP
An image provided by the US Navy shows a Russian destroyer, left, very close to the USS Chancellorsville, right, while operating in the Pacific Ocean. US Navy via AP

Russian and American warships came close to a collision on Friday and both sides say the other was reckless but troubling, high stakes games of chicken on the high seas are not unusual.

Russia says the cruiser USS Chancellorsville crossed just 50 metres in front of the destroyer Admiral Vinogradov, forcing it to perform an emergency manoeuvre to avoid hitting the American vessel.

But, the US says that the Russian sailors were “unsafe and unprofessional” and said they were to blame for the incident, dismissing Moscow’s account as “propaganda”.

Both sides are lodging formal protests over the incident, which according to long-established maritime rules should never have happened.

Rules of the sea require vessels to maintain a safe distance in open water, normally interpreted as at least 900 metres. Passing within 15 metres of each other is very reckless when large ships can have long stopping distances and impaired manoeuvrability.

But perhaps more remarkable about the incident is that while it took place in the Pacific Ocean – itself unusual – neither side appear to agree exactly where, despite both warships almost certainly having sophisticated navigation equipment that could place them accurately to within metres.

In this image taken from video provided by the US Navy showing the near collision. US Navy via AP
In this image taken from video provided by the US Navy showing the near collision. US Navy via AP

Neither side has said they were having issues with their on-board navigation systems but Russia says the near miss took place in the southeast of the East China Sea while the Americans say it took place in the Philippine Sea. Unless they are quibbling over the semantics of where one region starts and the other finishes, it would seem even the basics of the issue are a matter of contention.

But, incidents of this nature are neither new nor particularly rare, especially at times of heightened tensions around other issues.

The US often sends warships to exercise the right to free movement within international waters – a rule that Washington is hawkish about protecting given that it underpins much of the world’s international maritime trade and they don’t want to see countries make try and make grabs on unclaimed waters that could impair that.

The rules have been tested around islands in the South China Sea that China claims a historical ownership over. Beijing reclaimed land around the small uninhabited spits and built military bases. Being recognised as Chinese territory would extend the country’s exclusive economic area hundreds of miles.

The US has rejected their claims and has sent warships through the area without first notifying Beijing, insisting it has no sovereignty in the region.

But that case is a little different from the incident on Friday.

Russia has also tried to challenge America and its allies on their enforcing of free movement, especially in areas it sees as its own.

This usually plays out in the Black Sea, seen by some in Moscow as their own private lake. Taking place in the Pacific Ocean is notable as it’s not exactly an area either side is staking a claim to.

Russian ships and planes have carried out threatening manoeuvres in both the Baltic and Black Seas. Russian planes have been recorded making passes over ships or flying up to the edge of Nato airspace, turning back at the last second but necessitating countries to scramble fighters.

The manoeuvres are usually tied to tensions between Russia and the West and rarely happen in isolation. Their message is straightforward.

However, it’s unclear if this is the case with Friday’s incident.

While the US has put out footage of the near miss, it is hard to attribute responsibility without a full investigation – it is still entirely possible that both side or neither was to blame.

Regardless, with the US saying that it represents the first potentially fatal near collision between American and Russian vessels since the Cold War, it will not be the last we hear about the incident.

Updated: June 8, 2019 05:47 PM

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