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Canada vs Russia at sea

A senior naval commander is playing down an account from one of his sailors of a seemingly tense standoff between a Canadian warship and Russian vessels during a recent deployment.

The encounter in question occurred while HMCS Charlottetown was deployed on a six-month operation between August and January that included monitoring Russian military activity in the Baltic and Mediterranean seas.

Canada has provided a steady stream of warships to participate in NATO patrols in the Baltic and Mediterranean seas since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

While those patrols are designed to reassure NATO's easternmost members and act as a check on any Russian aggression in the region, there have been reports of uncomfortably close encounters between the two sides.

But the Canadian military has largely avoided any reports of such run-ins with the Russians — at least until Leading Seaman Cory Johnson provided an account of one such encounter in a recent interview.

Johnson was a fire control technician on board the Charlottetown, and in an interview with an online publication from his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., he described the scene as "extremely stressful."

"The first time, we had to get everything electrically safe and unlock missiles so they could be fired if needed," Johnson told SooToday.com from Halifax, where the Charlottetown recently ended its deployment.

"We had several Russian ships and submarines around us. It's no secret we were tracking and monitoring where they were going."

The Canadian and Russian vessels were not in communication at the time, and that Russian fighter aircraft also flew over the NATO force to which the Charlottetown was attached, he added.

"They were very close to us and we didn't have any communication as to what they were doing in the area, and why they were getting closer," Johnson said.

"It's very stressful. Even when you're not on watch, you think of your family."

Attempts to reach Johnson on Thursday were unsuccessful.

But Commodore Craig Skjerpen, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, painted a very different picture, saying that the Charlottetown's captain and other senior officers felt the situation was under control.

"It was all professional, and at no time was it at all unsafe," Skjerpen told The Canadian Press.

"Depending on how experienced you are and what level of training you got, it can be perceived different ways. But from all the senior people on board, those that receive all the specific training, it was not an overly tense situation."

Skjerpen did acknowledge that the Russians came within a few thousand yards of the Charlottetown and that there was no communication between the two sides, but he maintained that the captain was not overly concerned.

"There always is the ability to communicate in the event that either side felt uncomfortable with the actions of the other vessel," said Skjerpen, who is responsible for all naval forces on Canada's eastern coast.

"He was comfortable with what was going on."

As for the decision to unlock the Charlottetown's missiles, Skjerpen said there were still other safeguards in place and that such actions are frequently taken when Canadian vessels are deployed abroad.

"Was there a sense of an imminent threat that we needed to do that?" he said. "No."

While Johnson's comments caused a bit of a stir Thursday at the Department of National Defence, Skjerpen said the sailor would not be disciplined but rather reminded about what he can and cannot talk about publicly.



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