US, Russian navies exchange accusations after near-collision in East China Sea

The brinksmanship between Russian and US militaries has expanded from the air to the sea — and it nearly created a collision today near the Philippines. Just a few days after a mid-air confrontation over the Mediterranean Sea made headlines, the two navies are pointing the finger at each other as well. This time, the US Navy says it will declassify images to show the “unsafe and unprofessional” practices of the Russian navy:

“A Russian destroyer …. made an unsafe maneuver against USS Chancellorsville, closing to 50-100 feet, putting the safety of her crew and ship at risk,” US Navy spokesman Cmdr. Clayton Doss told CNN in a statement.

“This unsafe action forced Chancellorsville to execute all engines back full and to maneuver to avoid collision,” Doss said.

The US guided-missile cruiser was traveling in a straight line and trying to recover its helicopter when the incident occurred, he said.

“We consider Russia’s actions during this interaction as unsafe and unprofessional,” Doss said.

Not at all, Russia claimed in a rebuttal. Their ship was on a steady course and it was the Chancellorsville that swerved unprofessionally:

They cited a Russian Pacific Fleet statement as saying the incident took place in the early hours of Friday morning in the eastern part of the East China Sea at a time when a group of Russian warships was on a parallel course with a U.S. naval strike group.

“The U.S guided-missile cruiser Chancellorsville suddenly changed course and cut across the path of the destroyer Admiral Vinogradov coming within 50 meters of the ship,” the statement said.

“A protest over the international radio frequency was made to the commanders of the American ship who were warned about the unacceptable nature of such actions,” it said.

So who’s right? The US Navy says that the Chancellorsville was on a mission to recover a helicopter, which would require as straight a course as possible, as CNN’s Barbara Starr notes in her first report. If that was the mission, it wouldn’t make much sense for the ship to change course dramatically, especially with a hostile force tracking it in parallel.

It didn’t take long for the US to declassify a portion of the video, which is a measure of just how angry the Pentagon is over this incident. Here’s Starr again, pointing out the wake of the Russian ship as it appears to come within feet of the Chancellorsville — in what looks like wide-open waters:

Put simply, either the Russian captain is an absolute moron or the Russian military is engaging in deliberately provocative behavior. Perhaps they didn’t expect the US to release this video, or to release it this quickly, but it paints a pretty clear picture. No one got hurt this time, but these provocations will eventually cause an escalation at some point, especially if it results in collisions or a more serious response. That’s a bad path when one considers what an armed conflict could mean, and one hopes that cooler heads in Moscow will prevail to dial down these provocations in the future.