By Nat South for The Saker Blog
I am interested in the way that narratives that shape individual events are crafted, curated and disseminated, because ultimately there is a tendency to focus mostly on specific events and ignore the wider context. Ultimately, we end up with being presented with a series of disjointed events, not really understanding the history or the detailed framing of these events. One such example would be “Russian ships are prowling around undersea cables”, in the tenor of overstating the Russian threat. Often, the complexity and background of the issue is left completely blank and important facets are blurred. At worst, we are simply presented with a series of ‘soundbites’ such as this stark example: “Russia invaded Crimea”.
The starting point for this naval oriented briefing is the widely reported incident between a U.S. Navy destroyer and a lightly armed Russian navy intelligence reconnaissance ship somewhere in “northern Arabian Sea”. The U.S. Fifth Fleet alleged that on January 9, a Russian Navy ship ‘Ivan Khurs’ (AGI),“aggressively approached” USS Farragut, an Arleigh Burke DDG (guided missile destroyer), “conducting routine operations in the North Arabian Sea”, (in the words of the U.S. Navy press release). Subsequently, Moscow dismissed Washington’s claims.
Note the tone of stating “aggressively approached”, not really a nuanced interpretation of events. What wasn’t mentioned the likelihood that this took place not far from the carrier, ‘USS Harry S. Truman’. No context whatsoever was provided by authorities on this incident. A classic example of a specific event being framed without any further details as to why and how it happened. Nothing mentioned on what took place before the video snippets that don’t make much sense. What is the wider context to this incident? (More on this specific incident later on in this article).
Without getting into details on the well-publicised Iran / U.S. tensions and U.S. naval deployment to the region, I would like to turn to other broader aspects touching upon the Russian naval presence in the region. In January, a series of articles appeared on the geopolitical aspects of the Indian Ocean, such as this on China’s increased presence , “the Russians are coming”, and this that gives an all-round Indian focused overview. Taking an excerpt from the latter:
“During the unipolar moment from 1991 till 2010s, Washington still felt comfortable in its position; however, over the last few years, the situation has changed dramatically.”
The most recent element in the turning point that shows the dramatic change would certainly be the late December trilateral naval exercise between Russia, Iran & China. The high-profile, three-day naval exercise took place in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea. Although not a major strategic exercise, the naval drills conveyed a slight political undertone, particularly with the presence of the Chinese Navy. China’s regional policy remains the same, to engage with all countries in a cautious and balanced manner. This is reflected by the fact the PLAN also held joint naval exercises with Saudi Arabia in November 2019, with the practically the same theme of enhancing maritime security.
The Pentagon’s plan for continued domination of the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean as per Mahan Doctrine in a unipolar world, is started to be eroded by the presence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, (PLAN). On paper, the numbers involved is very small compared to the overall U.S. Navy presence in the region. Yet, Chinese encroachment into a space seen by Washington as their turf is already enough of an issue to warrant increased attention in recent years. So far, this has resulted in the creation of dedicated military structures, namely the Indo-Pacific Command, (USINDOPACOM) in 2018 and the release in June 2019 of a US military strategy report specifically on the region.
On top of all of Washington’s angst, is also the presence of the Russian Navy in the region. So, are the Russians just coming to the region now? No. The only noticeable change of recent is the taking part in multi-national exercises, (in Iran and South Africa) jointly with the Chinese.
The Russian Navy has been an occasional visitor for two decades, limited to one combat ship with two support deploying to either bilateral exercises or simply showing the flag as part of naval diplomacy. Take for example the annual bilateral exercises between Russia with India since 2003, (INDRA), with Pakistan since 2014, (Exercise Arabian Monsoon). Both of which are aimed at: “increasing inter-operability amongst the two navies, developing common understanding and procedures for maritime security operations.” Both activities clearly underline the “naval diplomacy” being used by Russia, striking a balance between two significant opposing countries.
What is changing is the nature and format of other newer joint or multilateral exercises. A glimpse of this is the Army International Games “Depth-2019”, competition in July 2017 in Iran. The Black Sea Fleet based rescue tug “Professor Nikolai Muru”, (Project 22870), made a first-ever passage to the Gulf to participate in the event. Insignificant, in the greater scheme of things, probably yes, but interesting the Russian Navy did this.
Lastly let’s not forget that the Russian Navy had infrequently participated in the Horn of Africa anti-piracy missions, probably best remembered by an epic video of the Russian Navy dealing with a pirate boat. Conversely, the PLAN has been a more consistent participant of these types of missions for almost two decades. Nevertheless, as I write this, the Baltic Fleet based ‘Yaroslav Mudry’ is out in the region having recently called in to the Omani port of Salalah. It is in the Gulf of Aden as part of the latest Russian anti-piracy deployment to the Indian Ocean.
A first in the Southern Hemisphere took place in late November 2019 in Cape Town, when Russia and China held their first trilateral naval exercise with South Africa. Exercise ‘Mosi’ was the first time that three countries belonging to BRICS exercised together. Participants included a type 054A frigate Weifang (550) and Slava-class Project 1164 cruiser Marshal Ustinov (055) and the South African Valour class frigate ‘Amatola’.
9th January 2020
Back to the 9th January incident, reminiscent of the era of the Soviet Navy, when there were numerous ‘interactions’ of this kind on and below the waves. Any naval Cold War veteran is able to attest to this. An example of maybe hundreds of incidents and accidents is when the Soviet destroyer ‘Bravyy’ on 9th November 1970, while observing a NATO exercise, collided with the British aircraft-carrier HMS Ark Royal. Other notable incidents were the Black Sea “bumping incidents”, although the context for this was slightly different, taking place in home waters, involving both the USS Caron and the ‘USS Yorktown’, under the activity of “innocent passage and freedom of navigation”. An issue that still provokes intense debate and U.S. FONOP activities, (notably in the South China Sea) as mentioned in a previous article on the Arctic. A snapshot of this rationale for carrying out freedom of navigation voyages can be found in the introduction of a paper presented here.
I had a deja-vu feeling when I heard about this incident. It seems to me practically a re-run of the ‘USS Chancellorsville’ & ‘Admiral Vinogradrov’ incident back in June 2019. I see that many instant experts on Rule 15 have suddenly popped up on social media, hence this specific commentary. Essentially several things could have done been done to avert this close call situation. The U.S. ship could have speeded up considerably to give the Russian ship more sea room to cross astern with plenty of space. There’s a lot more to this incident than just the videos extracts released by the U.S. Navy. However, this and the June 2019 incident needed to be contrasted with the shenanigans done in 60, 70s and also the 1988 Black Sea bumping incidents. Personally, this is pretty tame stuff in comparison.
The question is why this happens in this manner, (maybe due to saving face or not backing down). The carefully selected excerpts of videos, showing a fraction of the incident in question don’t help to understand the length, context or extent of the incident. The tetchy moments on who had ‘right of way’ (the nautical version of the Road Code – known as COLREGS) regarding the ‘Ivan Khurs’ close encounter with ‘USS Farragut’ can be regarded as just a “braggadocio” event aimed at media sensationalism. Well, not quite. There’s more the story than what it first seems.
As with the June 2019 incident, the U.S. ship was on the port side of the Russian vessel, considered to be a “Constant bearing, decreasing range” (CBDR) situation. Many arguments happened over whether the Ivan Khurs was in crossing situation or overtaking one, (was it 22.5 / 30 degrees angle? Essentially that’s a redundant point given the closeness and the continued CBDR situation, running out of safe sea space). A grey area well-known to mariners, hence the need to be quite clear in intentions from the outset. The video excerpts are equally unhelpful in determining the situation since some time must have passed between the video snippets.
The question that no one asked was why did both sides act early enough to avoid such close approach in the first place. It seems to me, in general one side was blatantly ignoring the CBDR situation and the finer points of Rule 15 or 17 COLREG, while the other won’t try or consider slowing down or bearing away from US ship. Essentially, a total farce where both sides seem to wind each up until the last minute, when finally, the U.S. destroyer actually opens up a bit the throttle. Given that it is a DDG, I’m sure that the USS Farragut has a higher speed than the ‘Ivan Khurs’, so the Russian ship can cross astern safely. Seemingly, neither budged and importantly both sides were basically ignoring parts of Rule 8 which sets out good seamanship practice, well before the Rule 15/17 situation arose, as both had each other on radar and visually for many nautical miles.
The other question is why did this incident occur? Essentially, eyeing each other for intel gathering. Scenario 1: I suspect it is the U.S. ship taking a keen interest, given the ‘Ivan Khurs’ is a probable newcomer to the waters, but was this was close to the area of the U.S. carrier operations. Scenario 2: Possibility of the USS Farragut either wanting to keep the Russian ship away from the U.S. carrier or maybe possibly deploying ASW array.
Of interest to note is the ad hoc presence of Russian AGIs and intelligence reconnaissance ships in the vicinity of U.S. carrier groups. This has been the case elsewhere, in the Eastern Mediterranean particularly, but seemingly a first for the Arabian Sea, (in many decades).
The Russian Navy is not the Soviet Navy in scope or numbers. As such the remaining current cold war era CCGs & DDGs that visit the region will gradually fade away, to be replaced by a smaller fleet of FFGs & corvettes; yet it will continue to visit the Indian Ocean. Although many pundits see this as a growing Russia’s return to the Indian Ocean as being relatively recent, when in fact it isn’t. So, the muted outcry by Washington of “the Russians are coming” is rather feeble and reveals a deep level of geopolitical insecurity. To paraphrase the Chinese delegate’s question at the Munich Security Conference recently, (see here):
“Do you really think the U.S. Navy presence in the Indian Ocean is so fragile it could be threatened by the occasional visit of Russian and Chinese warships?”
Russia has a new limited strategic presence in the Middle East and Africa and the naval visits are part of the bigger picture. Russian presence will continue given the backdrop of the U.S. public wish for an expansion of a NATO footprint into Gulf & Iraq, adding to the ongoing presence in Afghanistan since 2001.
Russia also has defence-cooperation agreements with about 15 African countries. This is somewhat reflected in the port call make by the ‘Marshal Ustinov’, (en route to South Africa, including Egypt & Algeria, Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde.
NB:The ‘Marshal Ustinov’ also called into Greece, Cyprus, Turkey (some are NATO countries).
By looking at the Russian Navy’s timid visits, the Indian Ocean is not a high priority regarding Russian maritime presence. Nevertheless, Russia has certainly stepped up its naval diplomacy in the region in different ways, making infrequent regular yearly visits to ports in the region, such as Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka and high-level working visits by heads of navies. Russia is also attentive to maintaining special relationships that it already has with countries like India and Pakistan.
Lastly, I cannot compare the minuscule presence of Russian Navy in region with that of the PLAN which is quickly building a larger force projection capability than the Russian VMF can realistically hope for these days. Let’s be frank, the Chinese PLAN is expanding considerably each year. 2019 alone saw another: 1 aircraft carrier, 1 LDP, 1 LHD & eight 7000t & two 13000t destroyers commissioned) plus 17 corvettes in one year!) The new tonnage must eye watering hard for the West to contemplate.
See this detailed article below I entirely agree with the author, as a civilian ex-mariner.
Who provokes whom and with which goal? https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/us-russian-navy-near-miss-incident-gunter-sch%C3%BCtze
Extra information on the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean:
Indian Ocean: strategic hub or zone of competition? https://uwidata.com/7211-indian-ocean-strategic-hub-or-zone-of-competition/
An visual overview of both recent Chinese and Russian naval port visits in the Indian Ocean is presented on the blog Warvspeace.org
Nat South’s sideline is occasionally commenting on maritime & naval related subjects ,with a special interest in the polar regions.