Russia announced last week that it would commence long-range bomber patrols of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Despite some concerns about interference with civilian air traffic patterns, the top brass actually seemed unimpressed with the whole thing, if not nonplussed. But the last incident of the Cold War might explain why.
To understand the possible reasoning of the official American position in the current Cold War, we have to go back to the waning days of the original Cold War. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the last of his line, was instituting reforms like glasnost and perestroika. While they were attempts at reforming a governmental system desperately in need of reform, they also hastened the downfall of the Soviet Union itself.
But it’s not like American President Ronald Reagan was just going to sit back and watch. Not at all. He was going to hasten the demise of the “evil empire” any way he could, even if that meant using the US Navy to piss off the Soviets any chance he could get.
Step one of that naval plan was to institute the 600-Ship Navy, which would keep older ships in service longer, re-activate the Iowa-class battleships, and speed up construction of massive capital projects, like Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.
And the second part of that plan hinged on an obscure doctrine of international regulations known as the Right of Innocent Passage. That, and a poorly-translated copy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Right of Innocent Passage basically dictates that a warship can pass through the sovereign waters of another state, as long as it’s not up to any funny business. In legalese, it reads:
Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law.
The way it works, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, is that each nation’s territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles out from the coast. Military vessels can move through those waters, as long as they’re just passing through from one point in international waters to another. That means no spying, no fishing, and no weapons practice.
And if it’s a submarine, the sub has to be on the surface, and flying its flag.
Which is all great. There’s nothing wrong with just passing on by, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting everyone to be open and transparent about what they’re doing.
But as with all legal arguments, this one starts to get technical pretty fast. Long story about the UNCLOS Article 22 Paragraph 1 short, the Soviet Union believed that it only had to let foreign warships into its waters if those waters fell upon common shipping lanes.
The American government believed otherwise. In its estimation, pretty much all waters within 12 miles of the Soviet coast were fair game.
Which included the waters around the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. Home to pretty much no major shipping lanes, and completely out of the way of anyone trying to get goods from pretty much anywhere to pretty much anywhere else:
So to prove to the Soviets that We Are Right And You Are Wrong, the US didn’t go to some sort of court, where legal cases tend to be settled.
They went to the 9,600-ton guided missile cruiser USS Yorktown, and its Spruance-class destroyer sibling, the USS Caron.
The first time the US tried testing the Soviet Union, in 1986, it resulted in some tense combat alerts and some strongly worded diplomatic letters on both sides.
The second time the Americans sent the Yorktown and Caron through in 1988, things got a bit more physical.
Actually, a lot more physical.
We’re talking warships-colliding-like-drunken-belligerent-rams-at-a-terrible-bachelor-party.
The idea behind the American intrusion was that if you don’t periodically exercise your freedom of navigation, you lose it. And this line of thinking wasn’t just used in regards to the Soviet Union, it was also used in regards to smaller nations as well, as James Kraska and Raul Pedrozo point out in their book International Maritime Security Law:
For example, in 1984, Bulgaria delivered a demarche to Washington after a US warship steamed within 12 miles of its coast on the Black Sea. The United States responded by explaining the right of innocent passage, as reflected in UNCLOS. A Pentagon official recounted, “We came back to them and explained the correct view of international law.”
How delightfully testy.
With that attitude in mind, the Yorktown and Caron purposefully crossed into Soviet waters in the Black Sea, early in the morning on February 12, 1988.
Waiting for them were two Soviet vessels, the Krivak-class frigate Bezzavetny and the Mirka-class frigate SKR-6.
The SKR-6 made it to the Caron first, which had ventured as far as just seven miles off the Soviet coast. As Kraska and Pedrozo recount, a number of warnings were issued:
The captain of one of the Soviet warships announced that “Soviet ships have orders to prevent a violation of our territorial waters” and “I am authorized to strike your ship with one of ours.” The USS Caron responded:
“I am engaged in innocent passage, consistent with international law.”
Shortly after the Caron‘s retort, this happened:
The captain of the SKR-6 had turned his boat into a giant battering ram. They weren’t going to use missiles or torpedoes or guns to force the Americans out, but dammit, they’d use the ship itself.
And shortly after the Caron had its face shoved full of Soviet warship, the Yorktown got its fill as well from the Bezzavetny:
Amazingly, of the four ships involved, none suffered major damage. After spending a little over an hour in Soviet waters, the Caron and the Yorktown carried on into international territory.
No, seriously, this is one of those rare cases of a bizarre mission actually becoming accomplished. About a year and a half after the incident, American and Soviet diplomats were greeted in the resort city of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, by the local governor and cheering schoolchildren, as the local Deseret Newsreported at the time:
The view afforded the two diplomats and their parties is one of mountain majesty blazing with autumn colors of red, orange and yellow. The setting contrasts sharply with the seriousness surrounding this latest phase of superpower bargaining. Both American and Soviet sides expressed optimism that agreement will be reached on several topics scheduled for discussion.
The resulting Jackson Hole Agreement of 1989 saw the Soviet Union basically concede the entire point to the United States. Freedom of Innocent Passage was secured.
As a concession to the Soviet Union, the US agreed that there was probably a whole bunch of times in which Freedom of Innocent Passage couldn’t be claimed.
But as a result of this weird event in Cold War history, even icy not-quite-enemies can see opposing forces getting uncomfortably close to shore.
And no, the UNCLOS doesn’t exactly apply to Russian Tu-95 bombers. But the American belief in the principle of freedom of navigation, especially in international territory, and you likely won’t be hearing any American military officials complaining anytime soon.
Photos credit: US Navy