Incidents at Sea Agreement
Served Far Greater Purpose
By DAVID F. WINKLER
On Oct. 25, at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Wash- ington, U.S. and Russian naval officers marked the
40th anniversary of the Incidents at Sea Agreement (
INCSEA). Since 1972, representatives from the two navies
have met annually to review any incidents that occurred
on the high seas during the previous 12 months.
Signed in Moscow as part of the Richard Nixon-Leonid
Brezhnev Summit by Navy Secretary John Warner and Admiral of the Soviet Fleet Sergei Gorshkov, the accord has
served as a model for other confidence-building measures.
The 1988 review was especially noteworthy. Earlier that
year, on the morning of Feb. 25, a Krivak-class frigate and
Mirka-class patrol frigate intercepted the cruiser USS
Yorktown and destroyer USS Caron operating off the
Crimean Peninsula near the Soviet Black Sea Fleet home-
port of Sevastopol. Anticipating that the Americans would
cross into Soviet territorial waters, the Krivak’s command-
ing officer, Vladimir I. Bogdashin, recalled: “I contacted
the cruiser … and warned it. They replied that they under-
stood; however, they didn’t change course or speed.”
Bogdashin placed his ship between Yorktown and
the coastline and the Mirka’s commander did likewise
alongside Caron. As the ships entered Soviet territorial
waters, Bogdashin repeatedly warned Yorktown, “Your
course is heading for danger.”
Yorktown’s commanding officer, Capt. Phillip Dur,
responded: “We are exercising our right of innocent
Bogdashin closed to 12 meters and again issued his
warning, with no effect. He then ordered his helmsman
to turn the frigate toward the American cruiser. As his
ship rubbed along the port side of Yorktown, the Mirka
nudged into the port quarter of Caron. Damage to all
four ships was relatively minor.
The American ships’ attempt to cut across waters off
the tip of the Crimean peninsula as allowed by international law had been a Freedom of Navigation exercise
approved “at the highest level.” Only hours after the
collision, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs
Michael H. Armacost called in Soviet Ambassador
Anatoly Dubinin to deliver a strong protest.
The following day in Moscow, Deputy Foreign
Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh summoned U.S.
Ambassador Jack F. Matlock to protest the American violation of Soviet borders. Later that day, Soviet Foreign
Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov stated that he
considered the American action a “military provocation.”
At the end of February, the State Department directed
the American ambassador to deliver a drafted text reiterating international statutes concerning innocent passage
and reserving the right to seek appropriate compensation
for any damage.
In retrospect, the incident merely was a hiccup in the
relationship between the two sides. In early June 1988,
President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev happily embraced each other at a Moscow summit.
However, arriving in Moscow a week after the summit, American INCSEA delegation head Vice Adm.
Henry C. Mustin would find out that the Soviets had not
forgotten about the Black Sea incident. Because the collisions occurred in Soviet territorial waters, they were not
technically covered under INCSEA, which had been
designed to oversee behavior on the high seas. However,
the Soviets added the incidents to the agenda.
During the annual review, Mustin called on First
Deputy Commander in Chief of the Soviet Navy Adm.
Konstantin Makarov, who spoke frankly to the American
flag officer. Mustin recalled the 40-minute discussion.
Makarov said, “These things are unnecessarily provocative. We would very much appreciate it if you could stop.”
On Sept. 23, 1989, at the Jackson Hole, Wyo., meeting between Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze
and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, the Soviets
signed a statement acknowledging international laws
regarding the right of other nations’ vessels to conduct
innocent passage through Soviet territorial waters, and
the United States declared there no longer was the
need to conduct Freedom of Navigation cruises
through those waters to assert that right.
Speaking at the 40th anniversary annual review, Warner
cited the INCSEA accord as one of his proudest achievements in public services. During the Cold War, the reviews
maintained a constructive dialog between the two navies
and, since the fall of the Soviet Union, provided opportunities for both navies to discuss cooperative ventures. ■
Source: David F. Winkler, Cold War at Sea: High Seas
Confrontation between the United States and the Soviet
Union, Naval Institute Press, (2000).
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical