The Black Sea bumping incident of 12 February 1988 occurred when American cruiser USS Yorktown tried to exercise the right of innocent passage through Soviet territorial waters in the Black Sea during the Cold War. The cruiser was bumped by the Soviet frigate Bezzavetny with the intention of pushing the Yorktown into international waters. The incident also involved the destroyer USS Caron which, while also claiming the right of innocent passage, was intentionally shouldered by a Soviet Mirka-class frigate SKR-6. The Yorktown reported minor damage to hull, with no holing or risk of flooding. The Caron was not damaged.
At the time the Soviet Union recognized the right of innocent passage for warships in its territorial waters solely in designated sea lanes. The United States believed there was no legal basis for a coastal nation to limit warship transits to sea lanes only. Subsequently the U.S. Department of State found that unlike the English-language text of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Russian-language text of Article 22, paragraph 1 allowed the coastal state to regulate the right of innocent passage whenever necessary. Following the incident, the Soviet Union expressed a commitment to resolve the issue of innocent passage in Soviet territorial waters.
In 1979, the United States launched an informal program to promote the "rights and freedoms of navigation and overflight guaranteed to all nations under international law." The program was initiated because the US government believed that many countries were beginning to assert jurisdictional boundaries far beyond traditional claims. The program was specifically implemented because diplomatic protests seemed ineffective. Thus, the US stance was that a state may lose its rights under international law if it does not maintain a consistent maritime policy (for instance, if a nation were to assert an excessive maritime claim and the US avoided operating its ships and aircraft in the disputed area, the US inaction would eventually contribute to the emergence of new customary international law).
In the 1980s, US warships were passing through the straits from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea two or three times a year to "show the flag" and to claim the right of innocent passage in the coastal states. Aside from the right of free passage, US naval activity in the Black Sea served the purpose of upholding US rights under the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. According to a US government official, "the Dardanelles and the Bosporus form an international waterway" under that convention and "if you don't periodically reaffirm your rights you find that they're hard to revive."
Meanwhile, "The Rules of Navigation and Sojourn of Foreign Warships in the Territorial Waters and Internal Waters and Ports of the USSR," enacted by the Soviet Council of Ministers in 1983, acknowledged the right of innocent passage of foreign warships only in restricted areas of the Soviet territorial waters in the Baltic, Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan; no sea lanes for innocent passage in the Black Sea were designated. The Soviet vessels and aircraft were routinely dispatched to observe US warships there. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union viewed the US presence in the Black Sea as an attempt to undermine improving Soviet–American relations.
After the 1986 incident in the Black Sea, involving USS Yorktown and USS Caron, a meeting of the Soviet Council of Defence was held in the same year. At the meeting, the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy Vladimir Chernavin offered Mikhail Gorbachev, Defense Minister Sergey Sokolov, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and other senior officials to drive out intruding foreign warships from Soviet waters by bumping.
On 12 February 1988, the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Yorktown, and the Spruance-class destroyer USS Caron, conducted a freedom of navigation exercise in the Black Sea. The Caron passed 7.5 mi off the Soviet shore, and the Yorktown drew to 10.3 mi offshore. The commander of the Black Sea Fleet Mikhail Khronopulo received an order from Chernavin to curb the passage of US warships. Initially the destroyer Krasny Kavkaz was tasked with confronting them, but her technical problems made the Bezzavetny, a Krivak-class frigate, be dispatched instead. However, according to Bezzavetny's commander, Captain Vladimir Bogdashin, his ship had two cruise missiles instead of four, was half the size of the Yorktown, and was only a third its size by displacement. The Soviet frigate SKR-6, commanded by Captain Anatoly Petrov, was approximately one quarter the size of the USS Caron.
First, the Caron was approached by the frigate SKR-6, and three minutes later, the Yorktown was approached by the frigate Bezzavetny, and Tupolev Tu-16 bombers monitored the vessels' movements. As the US warships clipped a corner of the Soviet territorial waters, they were bumped. At 10:02 am.m, local time, 44°15.2′N 33°35.4′E, 10.5 nautical miles from the coast, SKR-6 bumped the port side aft of the Caron at frame 466 (about 60 ft from the stem). The Caron received only superficial scraping of paint, with no personnel injuries. The Bezzavetny, having bumped the Yorktown, was ordered to move away and not to contact her.
Both US warships stayed on even course after the incident. The Caron left Soviet territorial waters at 11:50 a.m. local time without further complications.
Both US warships sent an account of the incident to the Commander in Chief of United States Naval Forces in Europe. The Caron reported at 13:20 local time, it was informed on channel 16 VHF by the Bezzavetny: "Soviet ships have orders to prevent violation of territorial waters, extreme measure is to strike your ship with one of ours." The reply of the Caron was "I am engaged in innocent passage consistent with international law." The Yorktown, in its report stated that on 9:56, local time, it was contacted by the Bezzavetny via channel 16 and told to leave Soviet territorial waters or "our ship is going to strike on yours." Then, according to the report, the Bezzavetny came alongside port side of the Yorktown at 10:03 and bumped it by turning into the ship.
The starboard anchor of the Bezzavetny was torn away. Two Harpoon missile canisters on the Yorktown sustained damage when Bezzavetny's bullnose passed down port quarter. Bezzavetny then cleared to port and took station 300 yd off port beam of the Yorktown. Bezzavetny received a minor repair.
The Soviet Ministry of Defense issued a statement blaming the U.S. warships for ignoring the "warning signals of Soviet border guard ships" and for "dangerously maneuvering in Soviet waters". The incident also drew a sharp diplomatic protest of the U.S. government.
On 11 July 1988, Chief of the Soviet General Staff Sergei Akhromeyev and Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff William J. Crowe issued a joint statement in Washington aimed at avoiding dangerous military activities. On 12 June 1989, the Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities was signed in Moscow by Crowe and the new Chief of the Soviet General Staff Mikhail Moiseyev.