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Russia threatens to ram US warship sailing in Sea of Japan

The Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56). (U. S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Leonard Adams Jr./Released)
November 24, 2020

On Tuesday, Russia’s Ministry of Defense claimed that a U.S. warship left Russian waters after its own warship threatened to ram the U.S. Navy vessel. The incident occurred in the Peter the Great Bay in the Sea of Japan, which Russia claims as part of its territorial waters, but the U.S. does not recognize the claim.

In a statement reported by Radio Free Europe, the Ministry of Defense said its ship, the Admiral Vinogradov anti-submarine destroyer, threatened to ram USS. John McCain after it ventured 2 kilometers into territorial waters claimed by Russia.

“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 driven 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,” the Russian Ministry of Defense statement said.

The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, based out of Yokosuka, Japan, denied the Russian assertion that its ship was operating inside Russian territorial waters and instead insisted the USS John McCain was operating in international waters as part of a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP).

“The Russian Federation’s statement about this mission is false. USS John S. McCain was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory,” the U.S. 7th Fleet statement said. “McCain conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and continued to conduct normal operations in international waters. The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle, and 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 U.S. statement also clarified the territorial dispute.

“In 1984, the U.S.S.R declared a system of straight baselines along its coasts, including a straight baseline enclosing Peter the Great Bay as claimed internal waters,” the U.S. statement said. “This 106-nautical mile (nm) closing line is inconsistent with the rules of international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention to enclose the waters of a bay. By drawing this closing line, the U.S.S.R. attempted to claim more internal waters – and territorial sea farther from shore – than it is entitled to claim under international law. Russia has continued the U.S.S.R. claim. 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.”

Russian warships have previously made threatening approaches to U.S. Navy ships, risking collisions. In January, a Russian Navy ship nearly collided with the USS Farragut as it was operating in international waters in the North Arabian Sea. In June of 2019, a Russian destroyer came between 50 and 100 feet of colliding with the USS Chancellorsville as it sailed through the Philippine Sea.

The latest incident at sea also comes as the U.S. withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, an 18-year-old arms control and verification agreement between Washington and Moscow.