When Russian troops invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula, Western governments were understandably spooked. In a perfunctory display of dissatisfaction with Moscow’s disregard for the international status quo, the United States sent naval assets to the Black Sea.
In April of last year, an international incident was narrowly averted after a Russian warplane attempted to communicate their willingness to directly challenge American forces militarily. According to the Pentagon, a Russian SU-24 fighter jet made a variety of low altitude passes over the destroyer USS Donald Cook while it operated in international waters.
The close-flying jet came within a few thousand feet of the USS Donald Cook, a guided missile destroyer which was conducting a “routine mission” at the time.
The U.S. ship tried to contact the plane’s cockpit, but received no response.
The Russian plane, which the U.S. says was unarmed, made at least 12 passes. This continued for about 90 minutes. The event ended without incident.
The United States did not make much of the incident. U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren called the affair “provocative and unprofessional,” but the American government did not dwell on the episode. Perhaps this was an unduly passive course of action. In an unusually candid television interview earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that this incident was not directed by Moscow.
Western capitals will also pay attention to the apparent evidence of command-and-control problems during the Crimean operation. Putin said that one military unit did not deploy to its directed location because it believed that the commander in chief had changed his mind. Putin had to intervene personally to resolve the issue.
When asked about the “buzzing” of the U.S. minesweeper USS Donald Cook in the Black Sea by a SU-24 fighter aircraft, Putin said that he had not given the order for this and that military commanders had “behaved like hooligans.”[Emphasis added]
More broadly, Western audiences will note that despite Putin’s public support for a peaceful settlement in the Donbass, Russian propaganda continues to keep up its high-pitched anti-Western, anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. This continues to repeat the accusation that Western countries orchestrated the revolution in Ukraine in 2014 with the express intent of inflicting damage on Russia.
It’s not entirely clear how that is supposed to be comforting if, as Newsweek’s John Lough suggested, this statement was aimed at Western audiences. If Putin truly did not have control over his commanders, that would be a terrifying admission that would compel NATO forces to treat all Russian forces as potentially rogue elements. It’s worth viewing this statement with a fair amount of skepticism, though. While it is possible that directly threatening an American warship was the action of an overzealous local commander, the implications associated with this provocation indicate that it had Moscow’s approval.