This incident reportedly took place on Sunday, while the Russian Kashin-class destroyer, RFS Smetlivy, was anchored near Greece’s Lemnos Island in the northern Aegean Sea. (Map below.)
The Russian ministry of defense announced that the event had occurred, stating that the fishing boat approached the destroyer too closely and did not respond to warnings.
A Russian defence ministry statement said the Turkish vessel approached to 600m (1,800ft) before turning away in response to Russian small arms fire.
An approach distance of 1,800 feet, or 600 yards, is hardly unusual in the crowded Aegean. Depending on where a ship anchors, it may not be possible for other ships to come and go, for perfectly legitimate reasons, without getting that close. According to the Bosphorus Naval News site, Smetlivy’s location at the time of the incident was about 22 km (11 nautical miles, or about 14 statute miles) east of Lemnos Island.
At any rate, this whole incident reeks of “he said/she said” on both sides. There are a number of questions to be answered before forming a judgment about what happened in this incident.
The Russians have rushed out to characterize it favorably for their narrative. The Sputnik outlet has even produced a handy collation of social media and comment-board reactions from Western audiences, which it presents under the subject line “Western Media Readers on Aegean Sea Incident: ‘Kick Turkey Out of NATO’.” (In the article, Sputnik quotes from some commenters who have no idea what they’re talking about. Their assertions certainly make the most arresting soundbites.)
The Turkish fishing captain responded by claiming ignorance about the warning shots.
The captain of the Turkish boat said he was unaware that his vessel had been shot at. …
The captain of the Turkish vessel told Dogan news agency he did not realise his boat had been shot at.
“We were not aware that they had fired shots at us,” Muzaffer Gecici said. “We have video footage and we have handed this to the coastguard. We didn’t even know it was a Russian ship.”
This too is a bit convenient and self-exculpatory. Mr. Gecici presumably knew it was a warship and that it wasn’t Greek. From 600 yards, he could discern both of those facts easily. If he doesn’t recognize a Russian navy ship from its profile, binoculars would help. Smetlivy was presumably flying the national ensign of Russia.
I don’t know if the Turkish fishing vessel has a camera mounted topside somewhere, recording constantly – but if not, there’s also the question why the crew got video footage of the incident, if they didn’t know they were having an encounter with a Russian warship, and had no idea the ship was shot at.
The (unintentional) humor in this event shouldn’t distract us from the fact that the tensions building between Russia and Turkey are real. I wouldn’t even want to characterize this particular incident without more information. It sounds like it’s being exploited for PR value, however little – or much – actual “there” is there. But the fact that both sides are motivated to do that, with “warning shots” as the pivot point, is what should worry us.
In all of this, we need to remind ourselves that only a few short years ago, we assumed we would routinely find professionalism on the high seas from both Russia and Turkey. Turkey and Greece have frequently had incidents due to their long-running maritime and air space dispute, but the overriding point about those incidents is how long they’ve been going on without being blown out of proportion, and threatening the political balance in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The danger of the current day is precisely that the political balance is threatened. That changes the character of everything that happens, big or small.
All things being equal, I’d say of Turkish fishermen that they’re mostly experienced mariners who, like fishermen everywhere, are very good at what they do but sometimes sloppy about the maritime “rules of the road.”
All things being equal, I’d say of Russian navy ships that they can get pretty bold themselves, when they want to, about close approaches and failure to communicate. Many a sailor from NATO nations can tell a story or two about a Russian warship cutting across his bow going 25 knots, or something like that. On the other hand – all things being equal – I don’t expect a Russian warship to go around looking for reasons to pop off small arms fire.
But all things are no longer equal. And that’s the problem.
Time to start our short-timer’s-calendar countdown to 20 January 2017. By my calculation, it’s “403 and a WU” (a “woo,” or wake-up).
To paraphrase Churchill, the change of guard in the White House may not be the beginning of the end of our troubles. But at least it might be the end of the beginning.