US and Russian warships nearly collide in the Pacific

Posted at 9:13 AM, Jun 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-10 17:37:00-04

The United States and Russian navies are at odds over an apparent near collision in the Pacific Friday with each side blaming the other.

The US and Russian warships came somewhere between 50 feet and 165 feet of each other, according to the two opposing reports, with both sides alleging their ships were forced to perform emergency maneuvers to avoid a collision, which can be seen in video and a picture of the event obtained by CNN.

In the video taken from the American ship, the two ships come so close that Russian sailors can be seen appearing to sunbathe on the stern of their vessel.

"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.

This latest incident comes just days after the US Navy accused Russia of intercepting a USaircraft and amid tensions with Moscow on a wide range of geopolitical issues.

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Russian Vladimir Putin in the resort town of Sochi, where he warned Russia about interfering in US elections, taking a tougher public line than President Donald Trump on the issue.

It also comes at a time of increasing cooperation between China and Russia. After a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin Wednesday, Russian leader Vladimir Putin said relations between the two countries have reached an "unprecedented level."

Russia's geopolitical views align with those of China on many international and regional issues, Putin added.

Both leaders agreed that there is no alternative to a peaceful solutionon the Korean Peninsula. They discussed joint efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria and attempts to stabilize the situation in Venezuela, he said.

Xi called the Russian President "a friend," and reiterated Putin's view, saying that "our cooperation is based on mutual trust."

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters Friday that he is concerned about the safety of sailors following the "unsafe and unprofessional" incident and said the US will engage the Russians in "military to military" talks to convey a formal diplomatic message of concern, known as a démarche, to Moscow.

"We'll have military to military conversations with the Russians and of course we'll démarche them. To me its safety that is most important. It will not deter us when conducting our operations," he said before greeting Greek Minister of National Defence Evangelos Apostolakis to the Pentagon.

'Unsafe and unprofessional'

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.

CNN obtained the video and picture of the event after a US official told CNN earlier that the Navy was working to declassify images to dispute the Russian narrative that the US was at fault.

Two navy officials tell CNN the Russian wake in the photo could only come from a steep turn that has to be executed at high speed.

"The wakes suggest the Russian ship didn't adhere to either the rules of the road or the incidents at sea agreement," according to Carl Schuster, a retired US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center.

International maritime law requires ships to maintain a safe distance, normally interpreted as 1,000 yards, when passing another. It also requires navies not to interfere with another ship conducting flight operations, he said.

The US account was contradicted by Russia's Pacific Fleet, which claimed it was the US ship that instigated the incident, according to comments carried by the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency.

"When moving (on) parallel courses of a detachment of ships of the Pacific Fleet and a carrier group of the US Navy, the cruiser Chancellorsville suddenly changed its direction and crossed within 50 meters of the Admiral Vinogradov," forcing the Russian destroyerto take emergency evasive action, the RIA-Novosti report said.

The US Navy said the incident occurred in the Philippine Sea while the Russian report said it happened in the East China Sea. The boundary between the two bodies of water is the Senakaku Islands (also known as the Diaoyu islands in China), to the south of Japan and east of Taiwan.

Regardless, the incident occurred in international waters and unusually far away from Russia, Schuster said.

"The Russians normally harass our ships when they are operating in waters the Russian consider to be within their sphere of Influence (Black Sea, Barents Sea and the waters off Validvostok," said Schuster, who spent 12 years at sea on US warships.

Sending a message?

Retired rear admiral and CNN military analyst John Kirby added that the timing of the encounter is also noteworthy as it coincides with Xi's visit to Moscow.

"Clearly this sends a strong message to President Xi, from Putin's perspective, that we are on your team," Kirby told CNN's Jim Sciutto.

"We have seen the Russians and Chinese cooperate increasingly ... when it suits their interests," he said, adding that the two countries participated in a major military exercise together just last year.

But at the end of the day, both Kirby and Schuster said that Friday's incident was primarily about sending a message to the US.

"Putin clearly has ordered the Russian Navy to pressure the USN whenever opportunities exist. It may possibly be a show of political support for China while Xi is in Moscow, but more likely to signal that Russia is willing to challenge the US dominance on the world stage and at sea," Schuster said.

On Tuesday, the US accused Russia of intercepting a US aircraft flying in international airspace over the Mediterranean Sea three times in just under three hours.

The second of the three interactions "was determined to be unsafe" due to the Russian aircraft "conducting a high speed pass directly in front of the mission aircraft, which put our pilots and crew at risk," the US Navy said.

The Russian aircraft was armed and passed about 150 feet directly in front of the US plane, according to two US officials.

The Russian military disputed the US Navy's characterization of the intercept as unsafe.

"All flights of Russian aircraft were carried out in accordance with the international rules for the use of airspace," the Russian Ministry of Defense told reporters Wednesday. "There were no questions or complaints from the American center of flight deconfliction line in Syria to the Russian command."