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David F Winkler

As the sun rose one morning in early May 1972 in the Mediterranean Sea, a Soviet and an American warship steamed in close proximity. In the early morning's light, the commander of the Soviet vessel observed a changed position of the national ensign on the American warship. Curious, he sent the following flashing light message:


The American skipper responded:


The Soviet skipper countered with a message thanking his American counterpart for the information and added:


I introduce this paper with that sea story to note that although there were numerous incidents between the navies of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War--not all of them were bad. And those incidents that were bad became fewer after 1972 due to the willingness of the two navies to abide by a bilateral confidence- building measure known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement.

Signed on May 25, 1972, in conjunction with the ongoing Nixon-Brezhnev summit in Moscow, "An Agreement between the Government of the United States and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Incidents on the High Seas and in the Air Space Above Them,"2 commonly known as INCSEA, has stood the test of time of over two decades, weathering such events as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the shooting down of KAL 007, and the hawkish attitude of the Reagan administration. The agreement successfully regulated the behaviors of the naval and aviation personnel on both sides and also provided a venue for direct military-to-military contact through an annual consultation provision. Now considered a pioneering confidence-building measure, INCSEA will prosper into the next century as other nations have adopted the accord for use in harmonizing bilateral relations. Nations also having accords with Russia include Great Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Canada, Norway, South Korea, and Japan. Germany and Poland have an accord. In December 1994, Arab nations along with Israel agreed to a text for a Middle-East multilateral version of INCSEA.

The story of events and negotiations leading to the signature of the Incidents at Sea Agreement is quite remarkable. It is a subject being covered in my dissertation on U.S.-Soviet maritime relations of the high seas during the Cold War. This dissertation was subsequently published by the Naval Institute Press under the title Cold War at Sea. I want to take a second to thank Dr. Ed Marolda and the Naval Historical Center for their support of my research. I also want to thank many of you who have spent time with me discussing various encounters with the Soviets and have contributed to enlivening my narrative.

Today, I want to focus on the process leading to INCSEA. Specifically, I want to look at the Soviet decision in November 1970 to accept a long-standing U.S. proposal to negotiate an understanding relating to safety at sea issues. Is this Soviet decision significant in the overall context of the Cold War? Not really. However, by examining possible Soviet motivations for pursuing negotiations, we may be better able to understand how Soviet naval leaders saw themselves versus the Western navies and within the Soviet military hierarchy during this important time period.

First, before examining possible Soviet motivations to hold talks, I need to provide some additional background information.

Former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. viewed incidents with the Soviet Navy as "an extremely dangerous, but exhilarating, running game of chicken." He knew first hand. In his book On Watch, Zumwalt described an episode in 1962 during his tenure as Commanding Officer of the USS Dewey in which he engaged a Soviet Riga class frigate in such a game in the Baltic Sea.3 During the first two decades after World War II incidents like the one Zumwalt mentioned, occurred mostly in proximity to the Soviet mainland. However, in the mid-1960s, the Soviet Navy deployed forward and began to challenge the U.S. Navy on all of the world's oceans. Soviet vessels harassed American carrier battle groups conducting flight and replenishment operations by aiming weapons, shooting flares, blinding with searchlights, and conducting dangerous maneuvers.4

The American public became aware of the problem after a pair of incidents occurred in the Sea of Japan on May 10-11, 1967. USS Walker, operating as part of a submarine-hunting task force, collided with a Soviet destroyer on the 10th of May, resulting in an immediate American protest to the Soviet Chargé d'Affaires in Washington. The next day another Soviet destroyer crashed into the Walker and another protest was presented. The incidents became a heated topic of debate within the House of Representatives as House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford proposed that the United States review its options to include allowing the Navy authorization to fire when challenged in this manner by the Soviets.5

President Johnson "deeply regretted" the incidents and considered them a matter of concern. However, the solution proposed by the House Minority Leader had dangerous potential consequences. Another approach was selected. On April 16, 1968, the United States proposed to the Soviet Union that "Safety on the Sea" discussions be held to look into curtailing such incidents. Despite the crash of one of their planes near the USS Essex during the following month, the Soviets ignored the American overture.6

On November 10, 1970, American Moscow Embassy Chargé d'Affaires Boris Klosson met with Georgi Korniyenko of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the meeting Korniyenko stated that "competent organs" within the USSR were now prepared to accept the U.S. proposal to hold bilateral meetings on avoiding incidents at sea between ships and aircraft of the two countries. He proposed that the meeting take place in Moscow in early 1971.

In our quest to find out why the Soviets chose to respond at this time, Klosson will provide us with our first theory. In a message to Secretary of State Rogers, Klosson speculated that the Soviets may have desired to send "a positive sign involving the military to help offset the negative effect of the Scherrer case, or the Ark Royal case may have bestirred them." The Ark Royal case referred to the collision that occurred the previous evening in the Mediterranean involving the British aircraft carrier and a Soviet destroyer that resulted in loss of life on the Soviet vessel.7 I discount the Ark Royal thesis. No government bureaucracy reacts that quickly.

The Scherrer Case

However, the Scherrer case merits consideration for it was the Scherrer case that had prompted the meeting between Korniyenko and Klosson. It all started on October 15, 1970, when a forty-eight-year-old Lithuanian truck driver and his nineteen year-old son forced a domestic Aeroflot flight to divert to Turkey, murdering the plane's stewardess in the process. The incident created instant tension between the Soviet Union and Turkey as Soviet extradition requests were ignored. On the 18th, a Turkish court intensified the Soviets' anger by declaring the hijacking a political offense, freeing the hijackers from criminal charges and extradition proceedings.8

Three days later, during this political storm, General Edward C.D. Scherrer, Commander U.S. Military Aid Mission to Turkey, decided to tour forward Turkish military installations. Unfortunately, the U-S Beechcraft airplane carrying Scherrer, Brigadier General Claude M. McQuarrie, and Turkish Colonel Cavdat Denilg flew into a real storm. Buffeted by high winds and blinded by heavy clouds, the pilot, Major James P. Russell, finally saw his destination runway. He landed his aircraft in Leninakan--in Soviet Armenia.9

Obviously, there was no connection between the above two events. Yet Vasily Grubyakov, Soviet Ambassador to Turkey observed: "There are now two Russian murderers in Turkey and one Turkish Colonel in Russia. Both must be returned."10

The Soviet handling of the captured aircraft and passengers soured relations between the two superpowers. The Soviet media exploited the incursion, equating it with the U-2 incident that occurred a decade earlier. The Soviets did not allow American embassy staff counselor access to the prisoners as specified in a counselor agreement. Both sides lodged protests. Chargé d'Affaires Klosson boycotted the October Revolution festivities. Finally, on November 9th, the Soviets indicated that the Americans and the Turk would be returned on the following day.11

Was the Soviet decision to negotiate INCSEA simply an attempt to send "a positive sign involving the military to help offset the negative effect of the Scherrer case . . . [this event] may have bestirred them?"

Let's consider some other possibilities.

Young Soviet Skippers

The first series of INCSEA negotiations occurred in the Soviet Union during mid-October 1971. On the weekend of October 16-17, the American delegation visited Leningrad. During a reception on this trip, American delegation member Captain Robert Congdon tried to converse with a young Soviet commander with a senior Soviet captain providing translation. Congdon noted that this young commander was so intimidated that his hands were shaking. After a toasting, the interpreting captain pulled Congdon aside. Reflecting on the incident two decades later, Congdon paraphrased what the Soviet officer said:

Please excuse the shy behavior of that young officer, but you must understand that this is one of the reasons why we have you over here. You are well aware that our navy has greatly expanded into a powerful blue water navy in the past decade, and this rapid growth has not been without difficulties as new technologies revolutionize naval warfare. We in the Soviet Navy had to make a difficult decision. Should we retrain all the senior officers who grew up in the coastal/patrol craft navy to assume command of these new missile cruisers, or should we fleet up the young officers who were initially trained on these new weapon systems? We chose the latter course. Thus, we have ship skippers like the fellow you just met who are in their early thirties. Frankly, we are concerned that some of these young officers do not possess the maturity nor the shiphandling skills, and this could lead to undesirable consequences. Hence, we decided to invite you here to implement some controls.12

Before considering this possible Soviet motivation, some context needs to be provided. By this point in the negotiating process, the Soviets and the Americans were in agreement on most issues. The sticking point was a Soviet insistence that fixed-approach distances be established between the two navies.

The U.S. resisted fixed distances for two reasons. First, such a fixed-distance regimen that implemented approach restrictions would hinder U.S. intelligence collection efforts. Naval intelligence argued that the Soviets would have an advantage in intelligence gathering due to the hundreds of overseas port calls during which U.S. ships opened the brow for visitation. Soviet ships were just not as accessible. Second, there were concerns that establishing fixed distances could establish some dangerous precedents for ongoing Law of the Sea negotiations.

Fixed-approach distances would not be incorporated into the 1972 accord. The Soviets brought the subject up at subsequent annual reviews. Although the United States never wavered in its position, participants on the U.S. side have confided to me that the Soviet proposal was probably benign and probably did seek to address a legitimate concern.

Other possible Soviet motivations?


Not only did the Soviet Navy rapidly expand during the 1960s, but the Soviet merchant marine did as well. At the end of World War II, the Soviet merchant service possessed 400 coastal-oriented vessels with a total capacity of two million deadweight tons. By 1958, this tonnage had doubled. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Soviets could boast of a relatively young merchant marine fleet having a cargo capacity exceeding thirteen million deadweight tons, which ranked their fleet sixth worldwide in this category. They were approaching the American merchant marine cargo capacity.13

This fleet was vulnerable, and there were times during the Cold War when the allies did consider exploiting this vulnerability. In recent conversation with a retired Royal Navy admiral, it was suggested that I research options considered by the allies to act against Soviet shipping should the Soviets move against West Berlin. Henry Kissinger wrote, in White House Years that one option considered in the wake of the North Vietnamese 1972 spring offensive was to harass Soviet merchant shipping en route to Cuba.14

Admiral Zumwalt noted that although official statements always blamed the Russians, "it took two to play the game."15 Addressing this issue from the Soviet perspective, Admiral Gorshkov explained that under the guise of insuring freedom of the seas, the United States conducted illegal shadowing of cargo ships with warplanes with "intent to intimidate." He wrote that American harassment tactics included obstructing the passage of Soviet ships on the high seas and making threatening use of weapons. In Gorshkov's writings and in numerous Soviet protests, "buzzings" by low-flying American jet aircraft were particularly objectionable.16

Given the Soviet maritime fleet's vulnerability to Western interdiction, this possible motivation certainly warrants consideration. However, there are other plausible explanations.


Over the years, Soviet actions at annual reviews have made it apparent how important the INCSEA bilateral tie has been for the Soviet Navy. This importance was first demonstrated that day in October 1971 when the airplane carrying Navy Undersecretary John Warner and the U.S. delegation landed in Moscow. Speeding from the airport in a motorcade of Zil limousines, the Soviet hosts reassured the visiting Americans that they would not be subjected to the typical hindrances, as this was to be a navy-run affair.

Although the Soviets desired a fixed-distance regime, they were content to sign an accord without that provision. Throughout the years, the Soviet commitment to the INCSEA process has been demonstrated through delegation continuity and a willingness to admit fault in those situations in which Soviet ships violated the agreement. Soviet sensitivity to their obligations under the accord were noted when interference attempts with KAL 007 salvage operations ceased after they were warned to "cut it out."17 A veteran of many annual INCSEA reviews, retired Rear Admiral Ronald Kurth, told me that at the subsequent May 1984 review after KAL 007, the Soviet Navy went the extra mile. He stated:

The Soviets really, really did everything possible to preserve the agreement and reestablish confidence. They handled their conduct in the Sea of Japan very openly and we did indeed reestablish confidence.18

Why this willingness to bend over backwards to negotiate and maintain a bilateral relationship with the United States Navy? Perhaps the Soviet Navy had an organizational versus national motivation for its actions. The Soviet Navy had long been the low man within the Soviet military hierarchy. For the Soviet Navy to be the only military branch to have a bilateral relationship with its American counterpart undoubtedly brought prestige.

If there were internal political motivations, there were also international motivations.


During the 1960s, the aggressive actions of the Soviet fleet contributed to the Kremlin's foreign policy objectives of competing with the United States for influence in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. By challenging Western dominance on the high seas, the Soviets hoped to impress the leaders of the world's non-aligned nations of the viability of socialism. Tactics of task force shadowing and aggressive harassment were accompanied by diplomatic offensives aimed at removing Western naval presence from regions where the Soviets hoped to make diplomatic inroads, such as the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.19

In addition, the Kremlin was extremely sensitive about areas close to the Soviet homeland, such as the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and the Sea of Japan. In these areas, the clear goal of Soviet harassment was to show extreme displeasure with the Western presence.20

Retired Captain Steve Kime, a former naval attaché to Moscow, who observed the Soviet behavior during this period, provided me with some additional insights. He argued that in that era there were three levels on which a navy could be credible. On the nuclear level and the presence level, the Soviet Navy was credible. During the 1960s, the Soviet Navy did pose a nuclear threat and was a constant presence, especially in the eastern Mediterranean and other waters. However, in spite of the impressive Okean 70 naval exercise involving 200 warships deployed globally, at the conventional warfare level, the Soviet Navy still was not credible. In 1969, British Defense Minister Denis Healy expressed Western confidence by boasting that if general war broke out, Soviet warships would be sunk within minutes.21 Although Healy's claims may have been exaggerated, overall the naval balance still heavily favored the West. Kime speculated that by pressing the United States Navy for some rules and conventions, perhaps even establishing some fixed-distance regimes, the Soviet Navy could achieve the credibility they had previously sought through harassing actions. A bilateral accord forced the United States Navy to treat the Soviet Navy as an equal even though in reality they were not. This bestowed legitimacy enhanced the credibility of the Soviet Navy, as well as the Soviet Union itself, in the eyes of other nations.22

The Obvious

Before I conclude, I do not want to overlook the obvious. In an article in the journal Naval Forces, Rear Admiral Robert Hilton once wrote:

Neither country wants to have its valuable ships damaged by inadvertent or imprudent actions of its naval officers. Neither nation wants an incident to escalate into a governmental confrontation.23

Both sides found the prospects of inadvertent warfare threatening each other's national security very undesirable, especially during an era when the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear parity and desired détente. Naval operations are complex and nerve-wracking, even in times of peace. Tension is only multiplied in times of crisis. With the implementation of the agreement, behavioral norms were established on and over the high seas that provided reassurance for ship commanders.

So what was the Soviet motivation to accept the long-standing U.S. offer to hold safety at sea talks? Was it simply an act to offset embarrassment caused by the Scherrer case? I don't think so. In think the Scherrer case simply provided the Soviets a timing opportunity to accept the American offer to hold talks. I believe the Soviet desire to hold INCSEA negotiations was motivated by the other factors cited: concern about the relative young age of ship commanders, the understanding of the vulnerability of its merchant marine, the desire to elevate the position of the Navy within the Soviet military hierarchy, attempt to enhance the Soviet Navy and the Soviet Union's legitimacy and credibility on the world scene, and finally, a concern for preventing needless injuries and damage and preventing inadvertent combat.


1. The Reminiscences of Vice Admiral Gerald E. Miller, U.S. Navy (Retired) Vol. II, USNI Oral History Program (Annapolis: U.S Naval Institute, 1984), 686-87.

2. The complete text of the English and Russian versions appears in U.S. Department of State, United States Treaties and Other International Agreements, vol. 23 pt. 1, 1972 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973), 1168-80.

3. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., On Watch (New York: Quadrangle, 1976), 393.

4. Robert P. Hilton, Sr., "A Confidence-Building-Measure at work: The U.S.-USSR Incidents at Sea Agreement" (a paper presented to the United Nations Seminar on Confidence-Building Measures in the Maritime Domain held at Helsingor, Denmark, June 13-15, 1990), 1.

5. John W. Finney, "A Soviet Warship Bumps U.S. Vessel 2nd Time in 2 Days," New York Times, May 12, 1967, A1.

6. William T. Shinn, "Department of State Memorandum of a Conversation held on August 27, 1970 in the office of Herbert S. Okun between Okun, Shinn, and Igor D. Bubnov." State, FOIA.

7. "AMEMBASSY MOSCOW to SECSTATE WASH DC" 101600Z November 1970, FOIA State.

8. Bernard Gweetzman, "Soviet Passengers and Crew Describe Hijacking, " New York Times, October 18, 1970, A24; Richard Eder, "Turk Radio Says Courts Act to Free 2 Soviet Hijackers," New York Times October 18, 1970, A1.

9. Bernard Gweetzman, "Soviet Bars Immediate 2nd Visit to US Officers as Unneeded," New York Times, October 29, 1970, A1.

10. "Hostages for Highjackers?" Newsweek, November 9, 1970), 37.

11. Events extracted from a series of New York Times, articles written between October 26th and November 10th, 1970.

11. Rear Admiral Ronald Kurth, interview with author on 5 September 1991 at Murray State University Kentucky.

12. Understanding Soviet Developments, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1978), 51; Norman Polmar, Soviet Naval Power: Challenge for the 1970s (New York: National Strategy Information Center, Inc 1979), 57.

13. Rear Admiral J.R. Hill. RN (Ret.) interview with author, Bishop's Waltham, England, 3 April 1996; Henry Kissenger, White House Years (Boston, Brown, Little and Company, 1979), 1118.

14. Zumwalt, On Watch, 391.

15. Sergei Gorshkov, Seapower of the State (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979), 51.

16. Sean Lynn-Jones, "Incidents at Sea Agreement," U.S.-Soviet Security Cooperation, Alexander L. George, Philip J. Farley, Alexander Dallin, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 498-99.

17. Kurth interview.

18. Eric Morris, The Russian Navy (Liverpool: Elliot and Yeoman Ltd, 1977), 35-36.

19. Lynn-Jones, 485.

20. David Fairhill, Russian Seapower (Boston: Gambit, Inc., 1971), 219.

21. Dr. Steve Kime interview with author on 12 March 1996 in Washington, DC.

22. Hilton, "The U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Treaty," Naval Forces, 1 (1985): 37.

23 September 2003