The US Navy reports that a Russian SU-27 Flanker performed a dangerous close-intercept maneuver off the right wing of a Navy EP-3 Aries II Electronic Surveillance aircraft over the Black Sea earlier today. This marks the latest in a decade-long series of instances of Russian ships and aircraft interfering with airspace and sea lane navigation by the U.S. Navy.
These incidents have increased since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. The Russians have long treated the Black Sea as a body of water that belongs exclusively to them, and they harass the ships and planes belonging to NATO powers when they venture into these waters. The most famous occurrence of this was in February 1988 when the Cruiser USS Yorktown was sideswiped by the Russian Frigate Bezzavetny. The USS Caron, a Frigate sailing with the Yorktown was “shouldered” by a Mirka Class Frigate, the SKR-6. At the time the two US ships were executing innocent passage rights through Russian territorial waters under international conventions.
The U.S. has asserted rights of innocent passage by warships and commercial vessels going back to 1979 when countries began extending their control of the sea far beyond the customary twelve mile limit. The Russian response under the Soviets in 1983 was to assert that while innocent passage was permissible in the Sea of Japan, the Baltic and the Sea of Okhotsk, no such rights existed in the Black Sea at all for any ship or aircraft. If this was allowed it would give Moscow defacto control of the narrow Dardanelles, or Bosphorus Straights. A 1936 navigation treaty called “The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straights” held that nations must exercise their right of passage through this international waterway with some regularity to maintain them.
So the US began to force the straights two or three times a year since the early 1980s to assert these rights of passage and the Soviets (now Russia) attempt to interfere with them to enforce their view that the Black Sea is entirely under their territorial control. This latest incident is a part of that. The Russians, in turn, will send bombers to skirt U.S. airspace prompting us to intercept them. Taking their cues from the Russians, the Chinese are also attempting to assert exclusive military control over the South China Sea to include the Spratley Islands where they are building military bases. This is part of the new Cold War, where traditional ideological adversaries of the U.S. attempt challenge the American Navy’s dominance over and protection of the maritime lanes of commerce and communication.