Russia and Ukraine made the news this week when Russian forces claimed that the Ukrainians violated their maritime territory, seizing both their ships and sailors near the Crimean. The Ukrainians deny these charges and threatened war over what they consider a flagrant violation of their sovereign rights. Putin and the Russians say differently, of course. Ukraine has imposed martial law and is preparing for war.
But this is not the first time that naval territory has sparked international incidents and almost war. A close observation of past incidents with the U.S. Navy will help assess the validity of Putin’s claims.
The Pueblo Incident
Commissioned at the end of World War II, the Pueblo had a fairly standard career as a freight and supply ship. The ship was reclassified as an environmental research and intelligence ship (a.k.a., a spy ship) when it was captured by North Koreans in 1968. The North Koreans claim the ship was operating in territorial waters and produced a log of the Pueblo that proved it. The Americans claim that any evidence was altered.
The attack killed one person and captured the 82 crew members, who were held and tortured for months. The attack happened a week after President Lyndon Johnson gave the State of the Union address, a week before the Tet Offensive threw the war in Vietnam in disarray and significantly increased the tensions between America and the Chinese as well as the Russian Communist bloc.
The crew was forced to pose for propaganda photos where they surreptitiously extended their middle fingers in protest, claiming it was a Hawaiian hand gesture for good luck. They were released after 11 months. The ship is still commissioned by the U.S. Navy, but owned and displayed in the victory museum by the communists in Pyongyang.
The USS Liberty was a technical research ship assigned to international waters in the Eastern Mediterranean to collect signals intelligence during the Six Days War. The United States was neutral during this war but still had active interest in the area.
According to Israeli sources, they had warned the United States that they would attack any unidentified vessels in the area, though U.S. sources say they did not receive any communication until after the Liberty was attacked. The Israeli torpedo boats recorded that the USS Liberty was moving between 28 and 30 knots, which indicated an attack speed from a warship. Survivors on the Liberty dispute that and claim the Liberty had a top speed well below 28 knots and that they were conducting surveillance at 5 knots.
The resulting air and sea attack from Israel killed 31 people and wounded 171. The official reports from both sides produced contradictory information, but Israel officially apologized and paid millions in settlements to the families of the deceased, the wounded, and for the material damage done to the ship.
Both of these examples suggest that the boundaries of naval waters are easier to fudge than land boundaries. Overly aggressive actors and those that want to send a signal can essentially create incidents at sea using falsified evidence. The North Korean dictators occasionally thumb their noses at world powers to strengthen their bargaining position and power at home. The Israeli’s were fierce in defending their territory in a war for survival and they epitomized the shoot first and ask questions later approach.
In the Russians’ case, the evidence of wrongdoing from the Ukrainians is nonexistent. Maritime laws protect the freedom of unimpeded travel through straits, including the Kerch Strait near Crimea. Instead, this can be seen as an aggressive actor trying to strengthen his position at home, reasserting Russian strength in Eastern Europe, and isolating and fatally weakening the Ukraine. As a result, the United States should stand firmly with Ukraine, demand the release of prisoners, use international organizations to bring pressure upon Russia, and assert the rights to Freedom of the Sea for every nation.