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Russian jets buzzing US warships in Black Sea may be ‘baiting us into shooting first,’ US Navy admiral says

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) and Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20), July 13, 2018. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Justin Stumberg/U.S. Navy)
August 12, 2021

Russia appears to be provoking a response from US and NATO forces with aggressive maneuvers in the Black Sea in recent weeks, the top US Navy admiral in Europe said on July 21.

“NATO allies and partners operating in that area by themselves are constantly shadowed by Russian vessels, and by and large, those interactions are safe and professional, although they’re meant to intimidate,” said Adm. Robert Burke, commander of U.S. Navy Forces in Europe and Africa, at a US Navy Memorial event, Business Insider reported.

“When a strike aircraft overflies a destroyer at 100 feet altitude and right over top, our [commanding officers] are making a judgment call whether that strike fighter is on an attack profile or not,” Burke continued. “It could be argued that they’re baiting us into shooting first. We’re not going to do that first without provocation, but I’m also not going to ask my commanding officers to take the first shot on the chin.”

In June, just days before 32 ships and 40 aircraft from 32 NATO countries came together for a massive exercise, Russian aircraft executed “unsafe” flights near those NATO warships in the Black Sea. Despite the aggressive display, the NATO allies continued conducting other exercises in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea for several weeks.

U.S. officials have previously criticized Russia for “unsafe and unprofessional” intercepts of US aircraft and warships, including low-altitude flights over ships.

Before retiring, Adm. James Foggo said Russian aircraft often flew without weapons in a configuration known as “wings clean.”

“In the interactions and the intercepts I see today, they’re coming out ‘wings dirty,’ or they have weapons on board,” Foggo said in 2019. “That’s another bit of the calculus that goes in the commanding officer’s mind on … what is the intent of that pilot.”

Burke expressed additional concern with Russia’s exercises, asserting they have “tactical risk” and “could turn into a strategic issue.”

“That’s a big concern with this increasing aggressiveness. So we’ll have to watch that very closely,” Burke added.

The top admiral accused Russia of engaging in an “extreme” form of “constant bullying” through its seizure of Crimea that was primarily aimed at influencing other nations.  

The annexation of Crimea and attempts to restrict access to international waters “results in some nations avoiding going to those areas, which is exactly the behavior change that the Russians are seeking,” Burke said.

“The Russian government is still very much an existential threat to the United States,” Burke added. “I think is as much of a threat today as the Soviet Union was in a Cold War.”