Video of a Russian destroyer coming within about 20 yards of a U.S. warship last Friday showed more than just a close encounter between great powers in the Philippine Sea. Close observers of the video quickly spotted what appeared to be Russian sailors sunbathing on the destroyer’s helicopter pad on the ship’s stern.
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Video of the close encounter, released by the U.S. Navy, showed two individuals on the Russian ship appearing to be shirtless with one seated in a beach chair.
At this same moment, the U.S. Navy said the Russian destroyer was accelerating from behind the USS Chancellorsville and closing to an “unsafe distance” of between 50 and 100 feet, forcing the U.S. guided-missile cruiser to execute emergency maneuvers to avoid a collision.
A retired Russian admiral argued Monday that the Russian sailors had every right to sunbathe because the ship wasn’t at war.
“There is a time for war, and a time for sunbathing,” Admiral Valentin Selivanov, former chief of staff of the Russian Navy, told a Russian government-funded news outlet.
“The seamen and officers have had lunch. They are on their after-lunch break, glad to be serving in the south,” he explained.
The admiral said that “if one was sunbathing, then dozens were.”
“And yes, you have to be undressed to sunbathe,” he added.
Even Russian news outlets have highlighted the presence of the shirtless sailors during the close encounter with the Russia-funded international channel RT describing Russian sailors as “SUNBATHING”in capital letters in a headline.
Sunbathing is not permitted on board U.S. Navy ships, a U.S. Navy official told ABC News. The official described several reasons for the rule, including that ships are a professional work environment. Safety would also be a concern, the official added, for example if a shirtless sailor slipped on the deck.
However, U.S. sailors do swim as a recreational activity during “swim calls” in which they wear bathing suits.
One naval analyst speculated it’s possible that the sunbathing sailors on the helicopter deck were not aware of what the Vinogradov was about to do in the vicinity of the USS Chancellorsville.
According to Bill Bray, with the U.S. Naval Institute and a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, the sunbathers on the helipad were likely part of the helicopter detachment aboard the Vinogradov and not formally part of the ship’s crew. That means their principal duties are to ensure the helicopter aboard the destroyer was being properly maintained and waiting for flight orders.
“They probably had no clue what Vinogradov was about to do in the vicinity of USS Chancellorsville,” Bray told ABC News in an email.
Bray recalled that during the Cold War, military bearing was lacking aboard Soviet spy ships that would shadow U.S. Navy ships at close range for hours or days, sometimes within a distance of 1,000 yards..
“Sailors would be walking around on deck without shirts in warm sunny weather. In fact, on several occasions I noticed that they had dogs on board with them,” Bray noted.
But Bray attributed that to the Navy being a mostly conscript force during the Cold War “meaning many of the crew didn’t want to be there and were just riding out their conscription time.
Bray also speculated that there is still a culture in the Russian Navy of not trusting junior personnel with too much knowledge. “Transparency from leadership is not big with them,” said Bray. “Thus there is little doubt in my mind that most of the crew weren’t cut in with what the commanding officer was going to do.”
Last week, Russia’s Pacific Fleet argued that it was the American ship that changed course without warning, forcing the Russian ship to avoid collision. The Russian statement also said that the ship broadcast a protest on an international frequency to the U.S. ship, telling it that its actions were unacceptable.
Since the incident, the U.S. military has issued a formal diplomatic complaint with Moscow.