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Russia’s Defence Ministry has said a Russian warship prevented a United States Navy destroyer from what it described as an attempt to intrude into Russia’s territorial waters in the Sea of Japan.
The incident on Friday came as Russia and China conducted joint naval drills in the area, and follows other close encounters involving Russian and Western warships.
It appears to reflect Moscow’s intention to raise the stakes in deterring the US and its allies from sending their ships on missions near Russian waters, as relations between Russia and the West are at a post-Cold War low.
The US military disputed the Russian account of the incident.
The Russian ministry said its navy’s Admiral Tributs destroyer closely approached the US destroyer USS Chafee to force it out of an area near Russian waters that was declared off limits to shipping due to the gunnery drills there as part of the Russia-China manoeuvres.
It said the Russian vessel came close to the US warship after it had ignored repeated warnings to leave the area in the Peter the Great Gulf. The ministry charged that after making “an attempt to cross the Russian sea border”, the US warship changed course when the two ships were just 60 metres (66 yards) away from each other and sped away.
It denounced the US destroyer’s manoeuvres as a “crude violation” of the international rules on averting ships’ collision and a 1972 agreement between Moscow and Washington on preventing air and naval incidents.
The US Navy said the USS Chafee was conducting routine operations in international waters in the Sea of Japan and confirmed the Russian destroyer approached the American ship at about 60 metres, but said all interactions were safe and professional.
“The statement from the Russian Defense Ministry about the interaction between our two Navy ships is false,” the US Pacific Fleet Command said in a statement.
The US acknowledged that Russia had put out a warning to mariners about its naval exercise in the area but said the notice was for later in the day and “not in effect at the time of the interaction”.
“At all times, USS Chafee conducted operations in accordance with international law and custom,” the US Navy said.
In June, Russia said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of British destroyer Defender to drive it away from Black Sea waters near the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The United Kingdom denied that account, insisting its ship was not fired upon and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters.
Like most of the world, Britain recognises Crimea as part of Ukraine despite the peninsula’s 2014 annexation by Russia.
June’s incident marked the first time since the Cold War that Moscow acknowledged using live ammunition to deter a NATO warship, underlining the rising threat of military collisions amid Russia-West tensions.
Moscow warned in June that it is prepared to target intruding warships if they fail to heed warnings.
Russia’s relations with the West have sunk to the lowest levels since the Cold War, following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, accusations of Russian interference with elections, hacking attacks and other tensions.
In other recent naval incidents, the Russian military said the British destroyer HMS Dragon intruded into Russian waters near Crimea in October 2020, and the US destroyer USS John S McCain allegedly violated the Russian border in the Sea of Japan in November.
In the aftermath of those incidents, Russia rejected the US and British arguments that their warships were exercising the right of so-called “innocent passage” under international maritime law.
The Russian warship’s manoeuvre during Friday’s incident appeared to indicate Moscow’s readiness to raise the stakes to prevent similar intrusions in the future.
The dangerously close encounter revived memories of a Cold War incident when a Soviet frigate bumped the US cruiser USS Yorktown in the Black Sea as it was making an “innocent passage” in Russian waters in 1988, damaging the US warship.