The U.S. and Russia are telling different stories about this incident. But the U.S. Navy’s story is credible, and the Navy has no reason to lie.
Whereas Russia does have a reason to do what was described to the Defense News reporter whose story is carried in Navy Times on Tuesday.
The encounter reportedly occurred on 17 Jun in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) was conducting flight operations, sending war planes over Syria. Truman is on the way home from the Persian Gulf, and has been flying over Syria for months – but not through the air space along the Syrian coast, where Russian military aircraft are using bases, and going to and from their missions in the Syrian war zone. Instead, prior to Truman‘s arrival in the Med for the home-bound transit, the carrier’s air wing had been approaching Syria from the east.
The public hasn’t been told what specific objections the Russians may have made to this excursion by Truman and her air wing. The excursion will be short-lived, to be sure. Truman, which was in port Souda Bay, Crete from 20 to 28 June, is headed home to Norfolk, and her relief, USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69), is passing through the Med to the Gulf.
But the confrontation in EASTMED on the 17th is one in a series of indicators that Russia intends to make it harder for Obama to keep doing stupid sh**, along the line of confrontation between Russia and whatever Obama represents now (the empty shell of NATO?), in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
A moment to clarify. There’s smart stuff to be done along that line. It’s not stupid to have a strong, active profile on that line. But it is very stupid to do what Obama is doing, if for no other reason than that his counterproductive kinetic dithering puts Americans at risk for no good reason.
Russia has effectively owned Syrian air space since about the end of September of 2015. And there was another recent sign, also on 17 June, that the U.S. flies there at Russia’s sufferance. Russian war planes attacked U.S.-backed guerrillas in southern Syria, and after being driven off by U.S. planes, came back later and continued attacking.
It’s clear that Russia isn’t going to pretend any longer. U.S. operations in Syria won’t necessarily be respected. (For reasons discussed at this link, and amplified by Yochanan Visser here, I believe Russia and Iran are preparing to launch their campaign to overrun ISIS in eastern Syria and link up a line of communication in the Euphrates Corridor from Raqqa to Fallujah. Shouldering the U.S. out will improve the conditions of combat for such a campaign.)
The coincident confrontation at sea on 17 June carries that theme forward. It’s symptomatic of how pathetic Obama is, that Russia deals with him in a passive-aggressive manner – harassing his forces at the tactical level – rather than dealing straightforwardly: using, as they say, words. Russia is a master of passive aggression, but for most of the last 70 years has had reason to expect better from the United States. She no longer does.
So we get the irresponsible capering about described by a Defense Department official in the Navy Times story (emphasis added):
“[Russian frigate Yaroslav Mudry, side number] 777 had raised day shapes “ball-diamond-ball,” which is the international signal a ship displays when restricted in her ability to maneuver, when she took position two nautical miles off [destroyer USS] Gravely’s [DDG-107] starboard quarter. Then, 777 repeatedly asked Gravely over VHF radio to maintain a safe distance, while 777 continued to maneuver to get closer to Gravely.
“As Gravely changed course and speed, 777 also changed course and speed. The maneuvering demonstrates that 777 was not in fact restricted in her ability to maneuver, and was thus intentionally displaying a false international signal.
“Gravely assessed that 777 was intentionally trying to interfere with Harry S. Truman operations.
“777’s closest point of approach (CPA) was approximately 315 yards to USS Gravely and five nautical miles to USS Harry S. Truman. The CPAs were closer than previous Russian Federation Navy interactions in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea recently.”
That a maneuvering incident could grow into something more serious remains a danger, the official added.
The actions of Mudry were clearly provocative and intentional. What the public can only now put together is that, on 17 June, the Navy war planes that went in to drive the Russians off in southern Syria were flying from the Truman in EASTMED. It appears to have been during the same flight day that the frigate Mudry maneuvered to provoke and interfere with Truman’s flight ops posture. It was quite probably during the very F/A-18 Super Hornet missions that intervened on behalf of the Syrian rebel guerrillas.
With the rest of the story now clarified, that is, indeed, just as dangerous and significant as indicated by the U.S. official cited in the story.
Russian media have depicted the event as a provocation by USS Gravely. That’s not believable.
It’s also not really correct to say that this is like the Cold War. In the Cold War, the Russians had more of a sense that they’d have to back down from confrontations if they took them too far. Today, the character of their confidence is different. It looks like they think they might well be able to harass U.S. operations enough, at a low level, to drive our forces away.
That’s hardly an unrealistic calculation, considering who the commander in chief is.