ABOARD THE USS PORTER, THE BLACK SEA—As the USS Porter entered the final hours of a transit across the Black Sea last week, an announcement came over the ship’s speaker system, portending a potential threat. A Russian military helicopter was minutes away, set to join a Russian frigate and cruiser that had been shadowing the ship for days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had just warned that U.S. ships in the Black Sea now were in his nation’s crosshairs. “This is a serious challenge for us,” he said.
On the Porter, a destroyer, sailors quickly filled the deck, some with long lenses mounted on cameras, all looking up to see how close the aircraft would get. With military discipline, sailors called out distances as they monitored and measured.
Tensions were already escalating between Washington and Moscow. Russia had deployed ground forces along Ukraine’s border, raising fears within the Biden administration of a new invasion, despite Russian denials. The troop movements came alongside a migrant standoff on the European Union’s border with Belarus, a Moscow ally. And a Russian missile test recently spewed debris into space, posing a danger to space travelers aboard the International Space Station.
The heightened animosity has drawn attention to what had been close but relatively predictable encounters in the Black Sea between U.S. and allied ships and the Russian forces watching them.
The fear on the USS Porter was that tensions on the ground could lead to miscalculations at sea. U.S. officials have accused Russians of engaging in reckless operations several times in recent years. After the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, a Russian fighter made several close passes near a U.S. destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, as it transited the Black Sea. The Pentagon denounced the Russian maneuvers as “provocative.”
Throughout its four-day passage from Georgia to Romania, the USS Porter, a 505-foot destroyer that carries Tomahawk cruise missiles, was accompanied by the USS Mount Whitney, a larger but lesser-armed command ship, and other ships from allied countries.
Minutes after the crackling Porter loudspeakers announced the imminent arrival, a Russian tandem rotor helicopter hovered within a few scant miles of the Porter for eight minutes. The helicopter moved deliberately—and safely, according to military officials—apparently in the hope of drawing the U.S. or allies that were part of the naval mission into reacting badly. A rash reaction by a U.S. or allied ship would undermine their argument that they were properly navigating the Black Sea.
The U.S. has conducted seven such transits in the Black Sea this year, and each time Russian ships have shadowed them. The interactions between the two nations have become a kind of maritime dance. The U.S., by moving through those waters, asserts its right to transit the Black Sea. Russia, by shadowing the U.S., shows its right to watch those movements from international waters.
Both sides seek to operate—and, in some cases, intimidate—within the norms of international law. But the added tension makes both sides watch every move more closely.
Nowhere else are U.S. and allied ships shadowed so consistently, military officials say. And in no other bordering waters does Russia conduct so many shadowing missions.
On the Porter, the U.S. photographers and videographers collecting data, known as a Snoopie team—for Ship’s Nautical or Otherwise Photographic Interpretation and Examination—moved from one side of the deck to the other, taking photographs. After each click of a camera, they quickly reviewed the shots to see if they captured an identifying number or name of the Russian ships and aircraft.
Cmdr. Christopher Petro, the commander of the Porter, and Cmdr. Joe Hamilton, the ship’s executive officer, joined the sailors on the deck. Both men, having been assigned to the ship for more than a year, were there to see if this pass by the Russians would be different.
After eight minutes, the helicopter swung away from the Porter, and moved toward the Mount Whitney, leading to the most tense moment of the transit. While the Porter can carry dozens of cruise missiles, the Mount Whitney’s defenses aren’t nearly as robust, because it is a flagship, used by the commander of the fleet.
Sailors on deck announced the distances between the Porter and the helicopter as it moved toward the Mount Whitney for approximately two minutes, then moved back, before peeling away.
Despite the tension, the Russian maneuvers were “safe and professional. They are very talented pilots. They know what they are doing,” said Capt. Kyle Gantt, commander of Task Force 65, which is in charge of the destroyers operating in Europe. “Our focus is ensuring that those norms, rules and laws are abided by and are available to all of our allies and partners.”
In the Black Sea, Russian ships usually begin following the U.S. naval vessels as soon as they enter international waters, sometimes getting as close as two nautical miles. During this four-day transit, the Russians came within 1,600 yards of the Porter as it refueled, the most vulnerable part of its trip.
The U.S. heads maritime security for partners in the region. In the port city of Batumi, Georgia, the U.S. Sixth Fleet and the U.S. ambassador to Georgia earlier this month hosted a reception for Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, whose nation depends on U.S. naval exercise since its navy was destroyed in 2008 by Russia.
“We understand the importance of sustainable Black Sea security.” Mr. Garibashvili said in an interview at the reception. “We share the responsibility for peace in the region.”
In Ukraine, U.S. officials have said they fear that construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will carry Russian natural gas across the Baltic Sea to Germany, bypassing a transmission system through Ukraine, could make it easier for Russia to invade.
Russia has maintained that its troop movements within its own borders should be of no concern to neighbors or to the U.S.
The Kremlin called U.S. naval operations in the region destabilizing and said it considered the naval transit a potential precursor to military action by the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “NATO is exploring the Black Sea region as a potential theater of war,” Tass reported on Nov. 10, with a photo of a U.S. warship operating in the Black Sea.
Mr. Putin, commenting on the U.S. and allied drill, said on Nov. 14 that he was purposely showing restraint in the Black Sea, adding that Russia decided against holding its own exercises.
In the end, the U.S., ships safely arrived in Romania, concluding their exercise, and the Russian ships left as soon as the allied craft exited international waters, allowing sailors to leave the ship’s deck and resume normal duties, waiting for the next encounter so they can again watch and gauge potential Russian intent.