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U.S. And Russian Ships Almost Collide In Philippine Sea


The U.S. Navy says that a Russian destroyer almost collided with one of its missile cruisers in the Philippine Sea this morning. In a message on the website of the Navy's 7th Fleet, the commander of that fleet called the incident, quote, "unsafe and unprofessional." Now, Russia blamed the U.S. for the incident. It said the U.S. ship suddenly changed course.

NPR's Tom Bowman has been looking into this. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

KING: All right. So there's some disagreement between the U.S. and Russia about what happened here. What have you found?

BOWMAN: Well, what the U.S. is saying is that shortly before noon local time, while operating in the Philippine Sea, they say a Russian destroyer made an unsafe maneuver against USS Chancellorsville, coming as close as 50 to 100 feet and putting the safety of the crew and ship at risk.

Now, the U.S. Navy is saying the Russian ship maneuvered from behind into the right of the Chancellorsville, accelerated and, again, came within 50 feet. And they're saying it's unsafe and unprofessional.

The Russians, meanwhile, are saying, no, it wasn't us. It was the Chancellorsville that suddenly changed course and cut across the path of the destroyer, coming within 50 meters of the ship. And they said they made a protest over the international radio frequency to the commander of the American ship, who were warned about the unacceptable nature of such actions. So that's what we have now.

KING: All right. Tom, the Navy's 7th Fleet has been in the news before. This is the fleet that ran two destroyers into commercial freighters a couple years back - 2017, 2018. Now, those cases were negligence. Does this, we must ask, look like a case of negligence?

BOWMAN: Well, at this point, it does not look like negligence, and we really don't know. Of course, the 7th Fleet was where you had the two collisions with the John McCain and the Fitzgerald in separate incidents. And when that happened, the Navy talked about problems with overworked, tired crews stretched with too many operations.

But this appears to be quite different. Again, you have two nations' warships this close operating in international waters. And again, the U.S. says a Russian ship maneuvered toward the American ship. And the Russians, of course, say something quite different.

KING: And so, Tom, of course, there are going to be a lot of questions about whether this is a sign of rising tensions between Russia and the U.S. or really just an honest mistake.

BOWMAN: Well, yeah. We'll see what happens. It could be returning to the Cold War time of kind of cat-and-mouse games with the U.S. and Russia. And China also has been buzzing U.S. aircraft and so forth.

And interestingly, Noel, just several days ago, a U.S. aircraft operating in the Mediterranean Sea was intercepted three times by a Russian fighter jet. And the Navy said that one of the interactions - the second one - was deemed to be unsafe because the Russian Su-35 passed at high speed directly in front of a U.S. P-8 Poseidon plane.

So again, that was just three days ago. So the question is, is this something - is this going to become a trend? Is it something new? Are we going to return to the days of the Cold War where you had a lot of interactions? At this point, we don't know. But again, that other incident - just three days ago.

KING: And, Tom, just very quickly, will an investigation be conducted?

BOWMAN: Oh, I'm sure the Navy will look into this and find out exactly what happened. And we'll learn more today or the coming days.

KING: NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.