A US Navy freedom of navigation exercise (FON) in the Sea of Japan appears to have attracted the attention of the Russian government. On Tuesday, according to the Russian defense ministry, the USS John S McCain crossed Russia’s maritime border in Peter the Great Bay. A Russian warship, the destroyer Admiral Vinogradov warned the McCain she would be rammed if it did not depart from Russian territorial waters and then chased the US ship into international waters.
The US Navy’s version of events was decidedly different. A 7th Fleet spokesman called the Russian claim false. “USS John S McCain was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory.” He said the US would “never bow in intimidation or be coerced into accepting illegitimate maritime claims, such as those made by the Russian Federation.” Incidents at sea between US and Russian warships are rare, yet similar incidents occurred regularly in the later years of the Cold War. Placed in modern context, this encounter bears a resemblance to those taking place occasionally between the US Navy and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea.
One must wonder about Russia’s motivation for trying to turn this rather minor matter into something more substantial. The prospects of an incoming Biden administration could be a mitigating factor. After all, Biden has claimed throughout the course of the 2020 campaign that he would take a stronger stance towards Russia if elected. This, coupled with the four year long rant from Democratic politicians about how Russia is consistently attempting to undermine America’s democracy may finally be coming home to roost in 2021. If Biden’s presidency does become a reality, Russia will likely test the new American leader early on in his first term.
On the other side of the coin, this matter might simply be Russia’s response to the US formally leaving the Treaty on Open Skies this past weekend.