1988 Black Sea bumping incident

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USS Yorktown collision.jpg
Soviet frigate Bezzavetny (right) bumping USS Yorktown
USS Caron (DD-970) collision.jpg
Soviet frigate SKR-6 bumping USS Caron

The Black Sea bumping incident of 12 February 1988 occurred when American cruiser USS Yorktown tried to exercise the right of innocent passage through Soviet territorial waters in the Black Sea during the Cold War. The cruiser was bumped by the Soviet frigate Bezzavetny with the intention of pushing Yorktown into international waters. This incident also involved the destroyer USS Caron, sailing in company with USS Yorktown and claiming the right of innocent passage, which was intentionally shouldered by a Soviet Mirka-classfrigate SKR-6. Yorktown reported minor damage to its hull, with no holing or risk of flooding. [1] Caron was not damaged. [1]

Cruiser Type of large warships

A cruiser is a type of warship. Modern cruisers are generally the largest ships in a fleet after aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships, and can usually perform several roles.

USS <i>Yorktown</i> (CG-48) CG-48, Ticonderoga-class cruiser

USS Yorktown (DDG-48/CG-48) is a decommissioned Ticonderoga-class cruiser in the United States Navy from 1984 to 2004, named for the American Revolutionary War Battle of Yorktown.

Innocent passage is a concept in the law of the sea that allows for a vessel to pass through the territorial waters of another state, subject to certain restrictions. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Article 19 defines innocent passage as:

1. Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law.

2. Passage of a foreign ship shall be considered to be prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State if in the territorial sea it engages in any of the following activities:

(a) any threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of the coastal State, or in any other manner in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations;

(b) any exercise or practice with weapons of any kind;

(c) any act aimed at collecting information to the prejudice of the defence or security of the coastal State;

(d) any act of propaganda aimed at affecting the defence or security of the coastal State;

(e) the launching, landing or taking on board of any aircraft;

(f) the launching, landing or taking on board of any military device;

(g) the loading or unloading of any commodity, currency or person contrary to the customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations of the coastal State;

(h) any act of wilful and serious pollution contrary to this Convention;

(i) any fishing activities;

(j) the carrying out of research or survey activities;

(k) any act aimed at interfering with any systems of communication or any other facilities or installations of the coastal State;

(l) any other activity not having a direct bearing on passage.


At the time, the Soviet Union recognized the right of innocent passage for warships in its territorial waters solely in designated sea lanes. [2] The United States believed that there was no legal basis for a coastal nation to limit warship transits to sea lanes only. [3] Subsequently, the U.S. Department of State found that the Russian-language text of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 22, paragraph 1 allowed the coastal state to regulate the right of innocent passage whenever necessary, while the English-language text did not. [1] Following the incident, the Soviet Union expressed a commitment to resolve the issue of innocent passage in Soviet territorial waters. [1]

A sea lane, sea road or shipping lane is a regularly used route for vessels on oceans and large lakes. In the Age of Sail they were not only determined by the distribution of land masses but also the prevailing winds, whose discovery was crucial for the success of long voyages. Sea lanes are very important for trade by sea.

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea International maritime law

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty, is the international agreement that resulted from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which took place between 1973 and 1982. The Law of the Sea Convention defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world's oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. The Convention, concluded in 1982, replaced the quad-treaty 1958 Convention on the High Seas. UNCLOS came into force in 1994, a year after Guyana became the 60th nation to ratify the treaty. As of June 2016, 167 countries and the European Union have joined in the Convention. It is uncertain as to what extent the Convention codifies customary international law.


In 1979, the United States launched an informal program to promote the "rights and freedoms of navigation and overflight guaranteed to all nations under international law." [1] The US government said that it initiated the program because some countries were beginning to assert jurisdictional boundaries beyond traditional claims. [1] The United States wished to stop this and, it said, diplomatic protests had seemed to be ineffective. [1] A new customary international law could emerge if nations avoided operating their ships and aircraft in the disputed areas, and the US saw this as undesirable. [1]

Freedom of navigation (FON) is a principle of customary international law that ships flying the flag of any sovereign state shall not suffer interference from other states, apart from the exceptions provided for in international law. In the realm of international law, it has been defined as “freedom of movement for vessels, freedom to enter ports and to make use of plant and docks, to load and unload goods and to transport goods and passengers” This right is now also codified as Article 87(1)a of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Not all UN member states have ratified the convention; notably, the United States has signed, but not ratified the convention. However, the § United States enforces the practice; see below.

International law Regulations governing international relations

International law, also known as public international law and law of nations, is the set of rules, norms, and standards generally accepted in relations between nations. It establishes normative guidelines and a common conceptual framework for states to follow across a broad range of domains, including war, diplomacy, trade, and human rights. International law thus provides a mean for states to practice more stable, consistent, and organized international relations.

Customary international law is an aspect of international law involving the principle of custom. Along with general principles of law and treaties, custom is considered by the International Court of Justice, jurists, the United Nations, and its member states to be among the primary sources of international law.

In the 1980s, US warships were passing through the straits from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea two or three times a year to "show the flag" and to claim the right of innocent passage in the coastal states. [1] Aside from the right of free passage, US naval activity in the Black Sea served the purpose of upholding US rights under the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. According to a US government official, "the Dardanelles and the Bosporus form an international waterway" under that convention and "if you don't periodically reaffirm your rights you find that they're hard to revive." [1]

The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits is a 1936 agreement that gives Turkey control over the Turkish Straits and regulates the transit of naval warships. The Convention gives Turkey full control over the Turkish Straits and guarantees the free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime. It restricts the passage of naval ships not belonging to Black Sea states. The terms of the convention have been the source of controversy over the years, most notably about the Soviet Union's military access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Dardanelles strait in northwestern Turkey

The Dardanelles, also known from Classical Antiquity as the Hellespont (; Classical Greek: Ἑλλήσποντος, romanized: Hellespontos, lit. 'Sea of Helle'), is a narrow, natural strait and internationally significant waterway in northwestern Turkey that forms part of the continental boundary between Europe and Asia, and separates Asian Turkey from European Turkey. One of the world's narrowest straits used for international navigation, the Dardanelles connects the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, while also allowing passage to the Black Sea by extension via the Bosphorus. The Dardanelles is 61 kilometres (38 mi) long, and 1.2 to 6 kilometres wide, averaging 55 metres (180 ft) deep with a maximum depth of 103 metres (338 ft) at its narrowest point abreast the city of Çanakkale.

Bosporus strait that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia

The Bosporus or Bosphorus is a narrow, natural strait and an internationally significant waterway located in northwestern Turkey. It forms part of the continental boundary between Europe and Asia, and divides Turkey by separating Anatolia from Thrace. The world's narrowest strait used for international navigation, the Bosporus connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and, by extension via the Dardanelles, the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.

Meanwhile, "The Rules of Navigation and Sojourn of Foreign Warships in the Territorial Waters and Internal Waters and Ports of the USSR," enacted by the Soviet Council of Ministers in 1983, acknowledged the right of innocent passage of foreign warships only in restricted areas of Soviet territorial waters in the Baltic, Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan; [1] no sea lanes for innocent passage in the Black Sea were designated. [1] Soviet vessels and aircraft were routinely dispatched to observe US warships there. [1] In the 1980s, the Soviet Union viewed the US presence in the Black Sea as an attempt to undermine improving Soviet–American relations. [1]

Baltic Sea A sea in Northern Europe bounded by the Scandinavian Peninsula, the mainland of Europe, and the Danish islands

The Baltic Sea is a marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean, enclosed by Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, northeast Germany, Poland, Russia and the North and Central European Plain.

Sea of Okhotsk A marginal sea of the western Pacific Ocean, between the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands, the island of Hokkaido, the island of Sakhalin, and eastern Siberian coast

The Sea of Okhotsk is a marginal sea of the western Pacific Ocean, between the Kamchatka Peninsula on the east, the Kuril Islands on the southeast, the island of Hokkaido to the south, the island of Sakhalin along the west, and a long stretch of eastern Siberian coast along the west and north. The northeast corner is the Shelikhov Gulf. The sea is named after Okhotsk, the first Russian settlement in the Far East.

Sea of Japan Marginal sea between Japan, Russia and Korea

The Sea of Japan is the marginal sea between the Japanese archipelago, Sakhalin, the Korean Peninsula and Russia. The Japanese archipelago separates the sea from the Pacific Ocean. It is bordered by Japan, Korea and Russia. Like the Mediterranean Sea, it has almost no tides due to its nearly complete enclosure from the Pacific Ocean. This isolation also reflects in the fauna species and in the water salinity, which is lower than in the ocean. The sea has no large islands, bays or capes. Its water balance is mostly determined by the inflow and outflow through the straits connecting it to the neighboring seas and Pacific Ocean. Few rivers discharge into the sea and their total contribution to the water exchange is within 1%.

After the 1986 incident in the Black Sea, also involving USS Yorktown and USS Caron, a meeting of the Soviet Defence Council was held later in the same year. [4] At the meeting, the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy Vladimir Chernavin suggested to Mikhail Gorbachev, Defense Minister Sergey Sokolov, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and other senior officials that intruding foreign warships could be driven from Soviet waters by several means, including bumping. [4]

1986 Black Sea incident

In the 1986 Black Sea incident on 13 March the American cruiser USS Yorktown and the destroyer USS Caron, claiming the right of innocent passage, entered the Soviet territorial waters near the southern Crimean Peninsula. The warships passed within six miles of the Soviet coast, where they were soon confronted by the Soviet frigate Ladny. The commander of Ladny notified the U.S. warships that they had violated Soviet territorial waters and requested that they depart immediately. The U.S. warships confirmed receipt of the warning but did not change course. The Soviet command placed its Black Sea air and naval forces on combat readiness and dispatched border guard vessels and naval aircraft to intercept the U.S. warships.

Vladimir Chernavin Soviet admiral

Fleet Admiral Vladimir Nikolayevich Chernavin was the last Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy from 1985 to 1991 and the only Commander-in-Chief of the Commonwealth of Independent States Navy from 1991 to 1992.

Mikhail Gorbachev 20th-century General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is a Russian and formerly Soviet politician. The eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, he was General Secretary of its governing Communist Party from 1985 until 1991. He was the country's head of state from 1988 until 1991, serving as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1988 to 1989, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet from 1989 to 1990, and President of the Soviet Union from 1990 to 1991. Ideologically, he initially adhered to Marxism-Leninism although by the early 1990s had moved toward social democracy.


On 12 February 1988, the Ticonderoga-classcruiser USS Yorktown, and the Spruance-classdestroyer USS Caron, conducted an innocent passage exercise in the Black Sea. Caron passed 7.5 mi (12.1 km) off the Soviet shore, and Yorktown drew to 10.3 mi (16.6 km) offshore. The commander of the Black Sea Fleet Mikhail Khronopulo received an order from Chernavin to curb the passage of US warships. [4] Initially the destroyer Krasnyy Kavkaz was tasked with confronting them, but she experienced technical problems so Bezzavetnyy, a Krivak-classfrigate, was dispatched instead. [5] However, according to Bezzavetny's commander, Captain Vladimir Bogdashin, his ship had two cruise missiles instead of four, was half the size of Yorktown, and was only a third its size by displacement. [5] The Soviet frigate SKR-6, commanded by Captain Anatoliy Petrov, was approximately one quarter the size of USS Caron. [5]

First, Caron was approached by the frigate SKR-6, and three minutes later, Yorktown was approached by the frigate Bezzavetnyy, [1] while Tupolev Tu-16 bombers monitored the vessels' movements. [6] As the US warships clipped a corner of the Soviet territorial waters, they were bumped. At 10:02 a.m, local time, 44°15.2′N33°35.4′E / 44.2533°N 33.5900°E / 44.2533; 33.5900 , 10.5 nautical mile s (19.4 km; 12.1 mi) from the coast, SKR-6 bumped the port side aft of Caron at frame about 60 feet (18 m) from the bow. [1] Caron received superficial scraping of paint, with no personnel injuries. [1] Bezzavetnyy, having bumped Yorktown, was ordered[ by whom? ] to move away and not to contact her again. [5]

Both US warships stayed on even course after the incident. Caron left Soviet territorial waters at 11:50 a.m. local time without further incident. [1]

Both US warships reported the incident to the commander in chief of United States naval forces in Europe. Caron reported that, at 13:20 local time, it was informed on channel 16 VHF by Bezzavetnyy: "Soviet ships have orders to prevent violation of territorial waters, extreme measure is to strike your ship with one of ours." [1] The reply of Caron was "I am engaged in innocent passage consistent with international law." [1] Yorktown, in its report stated that on 9:56, local time, it was contacted by Bezzavetnyy via channel 16 and told to leave Soviet territorial waters or "our ship is going to strike on yours." [1] Then, according to the report, Bezzavetnyy came alongside port side of Yorktown at 10:03 and bumped it by turning into the ship. [1]

The starboard anchor of Bezzavetnyy was torn away. [1] Two Harpoon missile canisters on Yorktown sustained damage when Bezzavetnyy's bullnose passed down port quarter. Bezzavetnyy then cleared to port and took station 300 yd (270 m) off the port beam of Yorktown. [1] Bezzavetnyy required a minor repair. [5]


The Soviet Ministry of Defense issued a statement blaming the U.S. warships for ignoring the "warning signals of Soviet border guard ships" and for "dangerously maneuvering in Soviet waters". [3] The incident also drew a diplomatic protest from the U.S. government. [7]

These incidents were covered in the annual review of compliance with the US/Soviet Agreement On the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas signed on 25 May 1972.[ citation needed ]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 William J. Aceves. "Diplomacy at Sea: U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations in the Black Sea". International Law Studies. 68.
  2. Kraska & Pedrozo 2013 , pp. 255–256
  3. 1 2 Kraska & Pedrozo 2013 , p. 256
  4. 1 2 3 Сергей Птичкин (10 April 2014). Атака "Беззаветного". Rossiyskaya Gazeta (in Russian). Archived from the original on 8 September 2014. Retrieved 8 September 2014.Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Алексей Овчинников (16 February 2012). Империя наносит последний удар. Komsomolskaya Pravda (in Russian). Archived from the original on 7 September 2014. Retrieved 7 September 2014.Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  6. Mark Thompson (13 February 1988). "Soviet, U.S. Ships Bump In Black Sea". Philadelphia Media Network. Archived from the original on 7 September 2014. Retrieved 6 September 2014.Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  7. Kraska & Pedrozo 2013 , p. 257