(CNSNews.com) – Amid simmering U.S.-Russia tensions over missiles and Ukraine, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer on Wednesday sailed near disputed waters between Russia and Japan, in an operation designed “to challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims” in the area.
The “freedom of navigation” operation (FONOP in military parlance) was the first by the U.S. Navy in those waters since the Cold War, Pentagon officials told U.S. television networks.
U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesperson Lt. Rachel McMarr said in a statement the USS McCampbell, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer forward deployed at Yokosuka, Japan, “sailed in the vicinity of Peter the Great Bay to challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other Nations.”
McMarr said the U.S. “will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the Sea of Japan, as in other places around the globe.”
She also said FONOPs were not about any one country, and were not linked to current events.
“All freedom of navigation assertions are grounded in principle and the rule of law,” she said.
Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are equipped with the Aegis system, capable of detecting, tracking and destroying ballistic missiles.
Russia’s Pacific Fleet is headquartered in Vladivostok, located on the northern coastline of Peter the Great Bay (Zaliv Petra Velikogo).
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, nations can claim territorial sovereignty over waters 12 nautical miles from their coastlines. (Two hundred nautical mile-wide exclusive economic zones are also recognized, but those waters are international.)
Freedom of navigation operations are those that assert the navy’s right to sail within international waters, irrespective of territorial claims coastal nations may have to those waters.
Still, Russia’s Sputnik news agency complained that a U.S. warship steaming near Peter the Great Bay was akin to a Russian Navy vessel sailing past the major U.S. Navy bases at San Diego or Pearl Harbor.
Black Sea FONOP next?
In recent days already chilly relations between Moscow and Washington have cooled further, over Russia’s ramming and seizure of Ukraine Navy vessels in the Black Sea’s Kerch Strait, and U.S. threats to exit a Cold War-era arms control treaty which it says Russia has been violating.
In Brussels on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave Russia 60 days to return to compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, failing which he said the U.S. would begin the process of withdrawing from it.
The U.S. says Russia has tested and is now deploying ground-based cruise missiles with a range banned by the INF Treaty, threatening NATO allies in Europe. Pompeo spoke after winning unanimous support from the 29-member alliance for the U.S. position.
Also on Tuesday, Pompeo told reporters in Brussels that NATO allies were in agreement that Russia’s actions near the Kerch Strait – which is Ukraine’s only access to the Sea of Azov and ports in the country’s south-east – were “lawless,” and that “deterrence must be restored.”
“We will collectively develop a set of responses that demonstrate to Russia that this behavior is simply unacceptable,” he said.
Pompeo did not elaborate, but on Wednesday CNN reported that the administration plans to give Turkey formal notice of intention to sail vessels through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea.
Under a 1936 convention, countries that do not border the Black Sea are required to give Turkey 15 days’ notice before their warships enter the Black Sea. (There are also restrictions on the maximum tonnage of the ships, and a 21-day limit on their stay in the sea.)
Russia and Ukraine are meant to share the waters of the Azov Sea under a 2003 bilateral agreement that allows both countries’ ships free passage through the Kerch Strait.
But Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 means that both sides of the Kerch Strait are now in Russian hands – Crimea in the west and the Russian region of Krasnodar Krai in the east.
What Ukraine maintains was a routine transit of small naval vessels from ports in the west of the country to ports in the east, Russia characterized as a deliberately provocative breaching of its maritime borders.
The three vessels and 24 crew members remain in Russian custody. Ukrainian media reports say the sailors, accused of illegally entering Russia’s territorial waters, could if convicted face prison terms of up to six years.