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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The many messages in Navy’s transit off Russian coast

On Tuesday, the U.S. Navy deployed a warship through waters just off Russia’s Pacific coast. There’s a lot more going on here than a simple naval transit, however.

The Navy noted that the USS John S. McCain Arleigh-Burke class destroyer conducted a freedom of navigation operation in waters that Russia claims as the Peter the Great Gulf. And the Seventh Fleet issued an unusually stern message, “The United States,” it said, “will never bow in intimidation or be coerced into accepting illegitimate maritime claims, such as those made by the Russian Federation.”

This is a challenge to enduring Russian claims over the entirety of the Peter the Great Gulf. Those assertions ignore maritime law on gulf formations and sovereign water limits. In that sense, this deployment can be seen as an extension to America’s challenge of China’s imperial claims in the South China Sea. Put simply, the U.S. Navy is reminding nations that their claiming of international waters as their own sovereign swimming pools doesn’t mean anything.

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Yet this isn’t just about principles over freedom of navigation. This action should also be seen as a response to the Russian navy’s escalating harassment of civilian vessels operating in America’s exclusive economic zone off Alaska. That Russian activity has damaged U.S. fishing commerce and is designed to test how far Russia can fray the edges of America’s Arctic resolve. But seeing as the waters that the John S. McCain just sailed through are the literal doorway to the Russian Pacific Fleet’s headquarters, this message won’t be lost on Putin or his admirals. Nor, indeed, on Russia’s cadre of nationalist media. Russian commentators have reacted with outrage. One, for example, is now criticizing the Russian navy for not detaining the McCain’s crew and trading them for two Russians in U.S. prison, Konstantin Yaroshenko and Viktor Bout.

Regardless, the John S. McCain’s transit is exactly the right way to address Russian aggression: with resolve and reciprocity. The Navy’s example should be expanded to other spheres of U.S. government action.

And it’s even better than that. There would appear to be an additional emotive quality to this transit. After all, the Russian warship deployed to intercept the John S. McCain was the Admiral Vinogradov destroyer. The very same warship, that is, which was responsible for a June 2019 effort by Putin to suck up to Xi Jinping. That involved the Vinogradov’s attempt to ram the USS Chancellorsville missile cruiser. I note this because I would imagine that the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet intelligence officers anticipated that the Vinogradov would be the alert response vessel to the John S. McCain. And if the Vinogradov took longer than it should have in reaching the American ship, well, its commanding officer is going to get his ears tested by the admirals.

Finally, there’s the fact that the John S. McCain was chosen for this operation, named after the late senator’s grandfather and great-grandfather, both of whom were four star admirals. The John McCain was added as a ship namesake shortly before the senator’s death. And Putin despises the former GOP presidential nominee for the right reasons: McCain understood that Russian aggression can be deterred only through practiced strength.

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