Russian officials are continuing to blame the U.S. Navy for what they describe as an incursion of their territorial waters by a Virginia class nuclear fast-attack submarine, an incident the U.S. side denies ever happened. In a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu put forward more details from the Russian side, alleging that the submarine was driven out of its waters by a Russian Navy destroyer, although exactly how this supposedly happened remains unclear.
In his meeting with Putin, Shoigu claimed that the submarine — “most likely from the United States” — encroached more than two and a half miles into Russian waters, near the Kuril Islands. This archipelago in Russia's far east extends into the Pacific and is of considerable strategic importance. It also sits at the center of a maritime dispute between Russia and Japan. The defense minister also described a three-hour effort by the Russian Navy to drive the submarine away.
Intriguingly, Shoigu mentioned that “special efforts, which were repeated three times,” were required to get the submarine to leave the area. There has been speculation as to what these “special efforts” comprised of, but the reality is that if the event took place as Russia describes, they could range from the use of some kind of weapon (counter-saboteur grenades have been suggested by some observers), or active sonar, or some kind of maneuver.
The reported incursion by the submarine took place at around 10:40 am Moscow time on February 12.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Virginia class submarine was spotted by a Russian Navy Il-38 May anti-submarine aircraft close to Urup, an uninhabited island in the Kurils chain. The submarine was then in turn tracked by a submarine from the Russian Navy Pacific Fleet, the defense ministry contends.
Il-38 aircraft from the Pacific Fleet take part in a previous exercise, involving laying sea minefields in the Sea of Japan:
An unnamed defense source told the Russian media that the Russian Navy was conducting maneuvers in the area at the time. Coincidentally, the objective of this exercise involved “search and elimination of a hypothetical enemy’s submarines in the areas of their possible deployment.”
The same source informed TASS that the location of the U.S. submarine was passed on to a group of warships led by the Pacific Fleet’s Udaloy class destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, which then took over the hunt.
“The submarine ignored the orders to the surface immediately,” according to another report from TASS, apparently issuing messages in both English and Russian via underwater acoustic systems, probably referring to the use of underwater telephone.
The Russian Navy then took measures — likely what Shoigu was referring to — to encourage the submarine to depart the area, which it then did, based on the Russian account, departing the area at “maximum speed.” While not entirely clear, the TASS story seems to suggest that the U.S. submarine also used some kind of countermeasure to help mask its presence once it had been detected. One likely explanation — provided the incident took place as Russia asserts — would be a self-propelled decoy that is designed to emulate the acoustic signature of the Virginia class.
A Russian Ministry of Defense statement declared that the destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov used “approved measures in accordance with the documents governing the Russian Federation border protection,” but didn’t provide more detail.
The supposed incident led to a diplomatic protest from Russia, with a note delivered to the US military attaché in Moscow. This apparently reinforced the fact that “the Russian Ministry of Defense reserves the right to take all appropriate measures security in Russia’s territorial waters to ensure Russia’s security.”
What’s important to note here is that the U.S. side has continued to deny the presence of any of its submarines in Russian waters, as alleged.
“There is no truth to the Russian claims of our operations in their territorial waters,” said Capt. Kyle Raines, a Navy spokesman for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. “I will not comment on the precise location of our submarines, but we do fly, sail, and operate safely in international waters.”
Capt. Raines flatly denied that there had been any contact between Russian and American ships in this area, whether within Russian territorial waters or outside them.
There remains the real possibility that the entire incident was a fabrication, as the U.S. Navy suggests. There have been many claims from Russia in the past that they have chased off U.S. assets, both at sea and in the air, especially around sensitive border areas. They have typically been met with strict denials from the United States.
On the other hand, there are some other possibilities that could help explain the Russian account. For instance, the Pacific Fleet could have uncovered an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) of some kind, perhaps one that was deliberately eavesdropping on the anti-submarine exercise or probing Russian maritime defenses. It's also possible it was a submarine from another nation that was misclassified as a U.S. Virginia class boat.
If the U.S. account holds true, then there is the distinct possibility that Russia manufactured the entire incident to draw attention away from the situation in Ukraine or as a means to demonstrate supposed provocative U.S. and NATO military activities around its borders. This narrative is one that the Kremlin has employed frequently in recent months as it seeks assurances about future NATO expansion and calls for the alliance to roll back its borders to where they were prior to expansion.
The alleged incident in the Kurils comes during an ongoing security crisis between East and West, with Russian forces, including around 130,000 troops, continuing to mass around Ukraine’s borders as fears of a potential new invasion of that country grow. At the same time, Russia and NATO are now engaged in an apparent tit-for-tat deployment of forces across the wider region, including around the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.
The same day that the submarine incident is supposed to have taken place, Russian President Putin and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden had a telephone call during which the Ukraine situation was discussed. The Kremlin has steadfastly denied that there are any plans to launch a new military intervention in Ukraine, while the phone call has been widely reported as having been unproductive.
Against the backdrop of tensions surrounding the situation in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe more generally, the alleged submarine incident off the Kurils takes on a greater resonance. Whatever the truth behind what happened, it’s clear that Russian officials, all the way up to the top of the defense ministry, are keen to use it as a tool to promote the idea of U.S. aggression against its borders.
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