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A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack jet makes a low altitude pass by the USS Donald Cook April 12, 2016. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting a routine patrol in the Baltic Sea.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack jet makes a low altitude pass by the USS Donald Cook April 12, 2016. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting a routine patrol in the Baltic Sea. (U.S. Navy)

NAPLES, Italy — The Navy’s top officer will ultimately decide if the latest encounter between Russian jets and a U.S. warship rise to a violation of the two navies’ agreement on conduct at sea.

At a time when Russian jets and ships frequently shadow U.S. warships in European waters, the case might not be an obvious one.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson will consider evidence catalogued by the commanding officer of the USS Donald Cook, the guided-missile destroyer that was buzzed repeatedly by Su-24 attack jets in international waters on Monday and Tuesday. The evidence will include a chronology of events and geographical reconstruction, as well as videos and photos released by the Navy on Wednesday showing the jets flying near the ship.

The report process is part of the Incidents at Sea agreement between the U.S. and Russia, originally signed in 1972 with the Soviet Union to prevent a misunderstanding from escalating into a larger conflict.

The agreement prohibits “simulating attacks by aiming guns, missile launchers, torpedo tubes or other weapons” in the direction of a ship or aircraft.

The Navy says the two warplanes, Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft, flew in a simulated attack profile and failed to respond to ship advisories in English and Russian, actions it called “unsafe” and “unprofessional.”

Other signs of an attack were absent, however, according to a defense official unauthorized to speak on the record, an apparent reference to electronic emissions used to paint the ship as a target. Both planes were also flying without visible ordnance.

“But you can clearly see on the video the way they were flying,” the official said.

The Navy has said the aircraft came as close as 30 feet off the ship’s aft and as low as the ship’s bridge, close enough to create a wake in the surrounding waters.

The official was unaware if the U.S. had reported any violations of the agreement in recent years.

Moscow has already rejected the U.S. complaint, saying the Su-24 pilots had used “all measures of precaution” and had complied with all safety regulations.

U.S. commanders have come to expect a visible Russian presence in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea, and many encounters are met with little, if any, response from the Navy. In an exception last year, the military released videos of Russian jets making several low passes near the USS Ross in the Black Sea — but only after Russian media claimed the ship was in Russian waters, an assertion denied by the Navy.

Even then, the Navy was reluctant to call the actions of the aircraft provocative, saying instead that Russia had every right to operate in international waters.

Other encounters have drawn more criticism, including the 2014 buzzing of the Donald Cook in the Black Sea, which the military called provocative and unprofessional.

Should Richardson conclude that this week’s encounters violated the Incidents at Sea framework, the Navy would seek to raise the issue with their Russian counterparts. Even that might take a while — the two navies have met to discuss the framework only twice in the past three years.

beardsley.steven@stripes.com Twitter: @sjbeardsle


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