In 1986 and 1988, the US Navy sent warships into Soviet Crimean Sea territorial waters as exercises of innocent passage (which essentially means that you can sail through an unfriendly nation's waters as long as you keep moving and don't do anything provocative, with the UNCLOS defining those provocative behaviors). The US Navy sailed through without stopping or doing anything provocative.

Naturally, the Soviets were not pleased, since they had tried to assert limits of which parts of their waters that innocent passage was allowed.

Did the Soviets (or, later, Russians) try anything similar in US territorial waters?

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    Yes; Hollywood even made a movie about it. Feb 7, 2020 at 2:28
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    @PieterGeerkens that was a very funny movie.
    – RonJohn
    Feb 7, 2020 at 5:16
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    Soviets didn't like this rule, so they never attempted to justify their actions with it. However, they certainly did violate territorial waters of other countries from time to time, mostly with subs. One famous incident is "Whiskey on the Rocks", most likely they did similar things with US waters (and didn't get caught publicly). When they did get caught, they would simply declare navigational error.
    – rs.29
    Feb 7, 2020 at 8:20
  • I thought the Panana Canal might be a possibility, but of course it wasn't.
    – Spencer
    Feb 7, 2020 at 11:54
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    @RonJohn I think you use the terminology incorrectly describing the Soviet Union as an "enemy". When discussing international law an "enemy" is a belligerent on the other side during a war. Cold wars don't count. The difference between war and peace (however tense) is so vital that using words like "enemy" loosely is not a good idea.,
    – MAGolding
    Feb 7, 2020 at 22:46

1 Answer 1


An important question about those sorts of actions is the logistic cost and the risk of escalation versus gains.

In Swedish waters, such intrustions meant:

  • Political gains as Russia enforce its capacity to be a threat
  • Military gains about knowing waters where they could be landing during WW3
  • Low risks for the submarines to be attacked since Sweden was not a match for USSR by the time, and Sweden was not protected byNATO (even less if Sweden hit first)
  • Low logistic cost, close to training cost

However, for American waters:

  • Soviet did not gain anything, speaking about military, from having a submarine in American waters. The only that could go that close would SSBN, i.e. submarines with nuclear weapons. Attack submarines would operate in open ocean against convoys and blue water fleets during WW3
  • The risk of escalation is high: US might suspect a surprise nuclear attack

So I did not find examples of such intrusions, there might have been some (for example during the Crisis of Cuba) but definitely not on a regular basis

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    The comparison to the "Whiskey on the rocks" incident confuses me, because that was in no way innocent passage.
    – RonJohn
    Feb 7, 2020 at 20:34
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    You can perhaps look up some news archives on the topic of 'Soviet trawlers" and 'Russian trawlers' operating off of the coast of the US in the 60's and 70's. They were in fact AGIs (Intelligence collecting ships) who were doing signals intelligence. It was a big deal in the news for a number of years. Not sure how many of them tried to do Freedom of Navigation ops, though. I wasn't in the navy at that point. Feb 7, 2020 at 20:35
  • Attack submarines would operate in open ocean against convoys and blue water fleets during WW3 Sounds like about ww2. The first task for the attack submarines before and at the outbreak of ww3 is to detect, stoke and try to sink submarines with ICBM, before they launch their weapons
    – d.k
    Feb 8, 2020 at 4:54
  • @user907860 There are plenty of types of attack submarines, and not all are made to fight against other submarines. In the Soviet arsenal, you'll find Victor and Tango classes that are rather dedicated to attack surface ships and convoys. The idea to chase down ICBM is not necessarily what would have been done in a conventionnal confrontation, since each loss of an ICBM submarine would incitate the launch of nuclear weapons by remaining ones Feb 8, 2020 at 11:28

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