Russian spy ship off US coast operating in 'unsafe manner,' officials say

  1. Application

(a) These rules shall apply to all vessels upon the high seas and in all waters connected therewith navigable by seagoing vessels.

(b) Nothing in these Rules shall interfere with the operation of special rules made by an appropriate authority for roadsteads, harbours, rivers, lakes, or inland waterways connected with the high seas and navigable by seagoing vessels. Such special rules shall conform as closely as possible to these Rules.

© Nothing in these Rules shall interfere with the operation of any special rule made by the government of any State with respect to additional station or signal lights, shapes or whistle signals for ships of war and vessels proceeding under convoy, or with respect to additional station or signal lights or shapes for fishing vessels engaged in fishing as a fleet.

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Like the saying goes, ‘When a dog urinates on a fire-hydrant it isn’t committing vandalism - it’s just being a dog.’

Warships are expected to operate aggressively in the presence of opposition. It’s what they do. Calling that behavior ‘unsafe’ or ‘illegal’ is just propaganda for the uneducated domestic audience.


Everyone knows those ships are surreptitiously fishing under the guise of intelligence-gathering.

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This argument doesn’t make sense to me.

Say you have a driver at night driving on the wrong side of the road with the lights out. That would be considered by most people to be unsafe.

But if the driver is drunk that would not be unsafe because that is what drunk drivers do?

I see what you were trying to say but we have laws and limits to try and keep drunk drivers off the road because we know it makes the roads unsafe.

Both drivers are knowingly choosing to engage in behavior that threatens others. The dog is not.

You could make the argument that when mingling with civilian traffic and under no threat of attack, warships should comply with the COLREGS but the judgment call is theirs and they choose blanket exemption.

There is NO blanket exemption for warships, not in the Convention not US law:

33 US Code 1603. Vessels subject to International Regulations

Except as provided in section 1604 of this title and subject to the provisions of section 1605 of this title, the International Regulations, as proclaimed under section 1602 of this title, shall be applicable to, and shall be complied with by—

(1) all vessels, public and private, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, while upon the high seas or in waters connected therewith navigable by seagoing vessels, and

(2) all other vessels when on waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.

Here is the USCG notice:

The United States Coast Guard has received reports indicating that the RFN VIKTOR LEONOV (AGI-175) has been operating in an unsafe manner off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. This unsafe operation includes not energizing running lights while in reduced visibility conditions, not responding to hails by commercial vessels attempting to coordinate safe passage and other erratic movements. Vessels transiting these waters should maintain a sharp lookout and use extreme caution when navigating in proximity to this vessel. Mariners should make reports of any unsafe situations to the United States Coast Guard.

Presumably this would be considered unsafe if it was a civilian commercial ship. How does the fact that it is Russian military change that? Even if it is expected behavior how would a mariner know to expect it without the notice? How would they know the type of ship?

article 8, paragraph 1, of the UN Convention

  1. Warships on the high seas have complete immunity from the jurisdiction of any State other than the flag State
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It doesn’t. I’m not advocating that it’s safe nor am I condoning the behavior.

Yes, Russian cannot vite a US warship on the high seas nor can the US. It’s the high seas.

But that is not incompatible with the US law cited which establishes quite clearly what law the US public vessels will follow including when on the high seas as well as the rules foreign ships shall follow when in waters subject to US jurisdiction. It just says no State has a jurisdictional claim against another state’s warships in such cases on the high seas which is fairly obvious. To comply with the agreed upon International Convention for Prévention of Collisions the other States establish similarly comprehensive legislation to ‘give effect’ to the Convention under their laws.

NWP 1-14M/MCTP 11-10B/COMDTPUB P5800.7A
AUG 2017 2-16

1972 COLREGS have been adopted as law by the United States. (See Title 33, United States Code (U.S.C.),Sections 1601 to 1606 (33 U.S.C. 1601 and 1606).) U.S. Navy Regulations, 1990, Article 1139, directs that all persons in the naval service responsible for the operation of naval ships and craft “shall diligently observe” the 1972 COLREGS. In accordance with COMDTINST M5000.3B, Coast Guard Regulations, Coast Guard personnel must comply with all Federal law and regulations.

Has the Russian vessel ever entered into US territorial water? (I.e. within 12 n.miles from base line)
If not it is just practising “freedom of navigation” and the right of military vessels to not issue AIS signal, just like other military vessels do.

PS>They should still follow COLREGS though.

It was quite clear in the notice from the Coast Guard that it is operating without running lights and not answering when hailed on the VHF. Freedom of Navigation this is not. It is just plain stupid.

The nonsensical result of requiring warships to obey COLREGS would be a group of cheap, quick and agile boats could maneuver themselves to compel a larger and less maneuverable warship to be shepherded around like a sheepdog moving a flock of sheep. Heck, a few cheap powerboats could repel an entire fleet just by manipulating the ROR.

What country would agree to that?

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Really it comes down to perception of power. Warships have the guns, missiles, horsepower and authority of their government to use them. Only another warship of equal or greater perceived power can “make” them do anything they don’t want to, and any legal beagle-ing from anyone really doesn’t matter, especially on the high seas.

That being said they still manage to wreck themselves pretty handily.

Well, a sailor shall not obey an illegal command nor shall an officer issue an illegal command (at least in the USN). So if a warship shall, by law, obey COLREGS it sets up a situation where an adversary could repel an entire fleet by using fast, unarmed boats and a creative application of COLREGS.

I’m not a lawyer so maybe I’m talking out my ass here.

That’s not how it works.

To say that the COLREGS apply to all vessels is a statement of legal status. In a practical at sea meaning the COLREGS only apply after a collision. This is true on both military as well as the commercial side.

In general following COLREGS is the lower risk option but if the ship has higher priority goals that conflict with COLRGEGS then expect them not to be followed. The so-called tonnage rule for example.

Are US spy ships following COLREGS and have their AIS transmitter on when they are snooping around near Russia or China, or any other country’s coastline?
Do they always show running lights and reply hailing on VHF, or by any other means?

As long as such ships are on international waters they are not subject to any other nations jurisdiction. US Law apply to US ships, not any other nations warship, or spy ships.
If they should have an accident because of not following ROR they may be sued but who would win against the Russian or US navy?

I’m pretty sure that the US Navy do not accept to be told what they can do in international water. Nor should they pretend that they are “shocked” that other ships take the same approach.

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It is easy to say such a thing would be impossible but not if you remember that for centuries officers from world superpowers would form up soldiers in lines, wait until their enemy stopped their march, loaded & aimed so both sides could fire at the same time it’s not that far fetch to imagine. I have worked with some retired foreign naval officers who seemed to be partially brain dead or functionally mental handicapped but somehow raised to the higher echelons of their foreign military branches by going completely by the book. “I was just following orders” & “I was just going by the book so if I’m only wrong the book is wrong” excuses were how they advanced.

Telling all the other navies of the world they have to follow the rules while our navy puts it on autopilot, turns down 16 to listen to music & plays Pong might not be a bad thing?