US Challenges Russia on High Seas: Brazen Violation of INCSEA Agreement

Europe (SCF) – Brexit and its ramifications, Europe’s migrants’ problem, the creation of global free trade zone agreements, terrorism and the fight against the Islamic State group hit headlines to distract attention from the problem of arms and military activities’ control moving to the brink of collapse.

On June 28, the Russian Defense Ministry made a statement saying a US naval ship had passed too close to one of its vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.

It accused the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely of dangerous activities.

The Russian Defense Ministry has released a video to confirm the fact.

The Pentagon officials blamed the incident on the Russian warship, but, unlike the Russian side, failed to provide evidence. The video clearly shows the US destroyer Gravely drawing even with the Russian Neustrashimyy-class frigate, Yaroslav Mudry, then passing in front of it and steaming away. It maneuvered directly ahead of the Russian ship, pulling away and rocking it with its wake. The USS Gravely breached international navigation safety rules by passing across the Russian ship’s course at a range of just 60-70 meters (65-75 yards).

An unusually high number of US and Russian naval ships have been operating in the Mediterranean Sea in recent months, mainly in connection with the ongoing conflict in Syria. For several days earlier this month, two US carrier strike groups were also in the region at the same time.

There has been an increasing number of close encounters between Russian and US militaries over the past year in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. All of them have taken place as a result of US armed forces operating in the in the proximity of Russia’s borders – the activities perceived as provocations by the Russian side. This time it’s different – the incident occurred on the high seas.

The US Navy has grossly violated the Agreement Between the Government of The United States of America and the Government of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas. Article III of the document states that «in all cases ships operating in proximity to each other, except when required to maintain course and speed under the Rules of the Road, shall remain well clear to avoid risk of collision».

Article IV stipulates that «Commanders of aircraft of the Parties shall use the greatest caution and prudence in approaching aircraft and ships of the other Party operating on and over the high seas».

Besides, American sailors breached the basic internationally recognized principles of safe navigation. According to the Rule 15-Crossing Situation of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (Colregs), «When two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall, if the circumstances admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel». 

The INCSEA Agreement is a very unique document – one of the first Soviet-US security agreements concluded between the great powers. Its history goes back to the historic visit of US President Richard Nixon to the Soviet Union. The May 22-30, 1972 summit featured the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), and the US-Soviet Incidents at Sea agreement. Nixon became the first US President to visit Moscow (and only the second President, after Franklin D. Roosevelt, to visit the Soviet Union). The summit was considered one of the hallmarks of the détente at the time between the two Cold War antagonists.

The INCSEA all but eliminated unsafe and unprofessional aerobatics and ship handling when US and Soviet (later Russian) forces operated in close proximity to one another on the high seas. In 1973 nearly 150 US and Soviet warships were deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean in an effort to support their respective allies during the Yom Kippur War. The Agreement worked to prevent the worst. Despite the heightened tensions, no serious incidents occurred between the two navies. Generally, both sides have lived up to their obligations under the agreement for 44 years! The last talks on the INCSEA were held between the two navies in 2015. A Russian Navy delegation led by Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev met a US team led by Rear Admiral John Nowell at US Sixth Fleet headquarters in Naples, Italy. «There was an open, frank and direct discussion… about how we can better operate in the same bodies of water and avoid miscues, mistakes or miscalculations», said Vice-Admiral James Foggo, deputy commander of US naval forces Europe. «I think that dialogue was productive», he added.

«Productive», indeed! The US Navy breached the historic document in broad daylight to provoke Russia!

It happened at the time Russia has returned itself the status of a great naval power with its blue water Navy maintaining global presence.

The fact evokes exasperation of the part of the United States striving to rule the waves unopposed.

The incident took place against the background of the entire system of security arrangements and arms control regime going through the hardest times in history.

It also occurred at the time the US has taken a decision to deploy ground troops in the proximity of Russian borders.

A US armor brigade is to deploy to Europe in fiscal year 2017.

The missile defense issue has greatly aggravated tension between Russia and NATO.

In addition, the US refuses to discuss cooperation with Russia in Syria.

The actions viewed by Russia as provocative and hostile multiply. It was not an accident that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a snap inspection of the Russian armed forces to assess combat and mobilization readiness. The inspection was carried out on June 14-22 at a number of weapons and hardware storage facilities, as well as individual military control agencies.

Now the US has demonstrated one more time its disparaging attitude towards international agreements. It continues to constantly provoke Russia and threaten the world peace instead of cooperating to tackle the burning security issues of common interest.


This report prepared by Alex Gorka for Strategic Culture Foundation.