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Are you invading, or just lost? Russian navy threatens to ram US warship ‘John McCain’ after it crosses border near Vladivostok

Are you invading, or just lost? Russian navy threatens to ram US warship ‘John McCain’ after it crosses border near Vladivostok
A notorious US naval destroyer sparked a diplomatic incident on Tuesday morning after Russia claimed that it had launched an incursion into its territorial waters.

The USS John S McCain, a specialist combat ship designed to hunt submarines, was operating in the Sea of Japan (also called the East Sea), off the coast of the Russian Far Eastern capital, Vladivostok. Authorities say it was more than two kilometers inside Russia’s internationally recognized maritime border.

A statement from the Ministry of Defense in Moscow said that the vessel had “violated” Russian waters and was “warned of the unacceptability of its actions” by the Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Vinogradov, which had been tailing it. The communiqué added that sailors had told the American ship of the “potential of resorting to ramming to force the trespasser out of the territory.” 

The US Navy claimed in a statement later on Tuesday that the vessel’s so-called “freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging Russia's excessive maritime claims.”

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This is not the first time that the USS John McCain has been involved in high-risk incidents at sea. In 2017, ten American sailors died after the vessel collided with a Liberian-flagged tanker, resulting in flooding and putting the warship out of action until October 2019. An investigation into that incident warned of an overly complex touch-screen system used to control the ship’s throttle, and a lack of training of its crew.

While the ship was originally named after his father and grandfather, both admirals in the United States Navy, late Republican senator John McCain was added as a namesake in 2018, less than two month before his death. The vessel has repeatedly been singled out for criticism by President Donald Trump, while McCain himself had been one of Trump’s biggest critics, arguing that his 2016 election campaign had “fired up the crazies.” The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that White House aides had asked for the ship to be moved “out of sight” of the president on a trip to Japan in 2019, to avoid angering him.

On Tuesday afternoon, however, the commander of the US 7th Fleet claimed that the vessel had not been “expelled” from any nation’s territory, and had been conducting a so-called “Freedom of Navigation Operation.” In a statement, the American Navy went on to claim that “by conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are not Russia’s territorial sea.” They argued that the disagreement arises from whether Peter the Great Bay can be considered “historic,” which would make it subject to different rules under international law, and therefore affects Russia’s sea border.

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