How quickly things change in the Black Sea. A couple months ago, during the Sochi Winter Olympics, the United States stationed the USS Mount Whitney and USS Taylor in the Black Sea to assist the Russians should a major security incident occur. Today, several weeks into Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ensuing international crisis over Ukraine’s territorial integrity, reports emerged that a Russian Su-24 jet made several low altitude, close passes in the vicinity of the USS Donald Cook in the international waters of the western Black Sea. The jet did not overfly the ship’s deck nor was any fire exchanged between either party, but the move is nonetheless reckless and dangerous at a time when tensions between Russia and the United States are high. Any miscalculation could have a high cost.
Pentagon spokesperson Col. Steve Warren condemned the Russian jet’s action. According to U.S. military sources, the USS Donald Cook attempted to communicate with the cockpit of the jet but received no response. The Russian side had not notified the United States of any scheduled drills or exercises in the region. The jet was unarmed, according to Warren, and made 12 passes in 90 minutes. “The aircraft did not respond to multiple queries and warnings from Donald Cook, and the event ended without incident after approximately 90 minutes,” Warren said. “This provocative and unprofessional Russian action is inconsistent with international protocols and previous agreements on the professional interaction between our militaries.”
For the moment, the Pentagon does not believe that the incident was a case of a Russian pilot joyriding over the Black Sea. “I would have difficulty believing that two Russian pilots, on their own, would chose to take such an action,” Warren notes. Instead, the Pentagon is reading this as a continuation of unorthodox Russian military conduct, which has been going on throughout the duration of the Ukrainian crisis (recall the initial entry of Spetsnaz into Crimea without any national insignia on their uniforms).
Little else is known about the intention of the lone Su-24, including if it was part of the Russian air force or the navy, or on whose command it was flying. The Su-24 is capable of carrying a significant weapons payload, including anti-ship missiles.
The move came shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin to work towards resolving the crisis in Ukraine, with little luck. Additionally, CIA Director John Brennan was in Ukraine over the weekend. Ukrainian authorities have taken to forcing pro-Russian activists and separatists in the eastern part of the country out of government buildings.