HMS Defender entered the Black Sea knowing it would probably be an eventful visit. Between friendly port stops in Ukraine and Georgia, passing by the tense region of Russian-annexed Crimea was bound to be a serious business. Russia’s claims that it sent Defender packing with warning shots and bombing runs aren’t a huge surprise – and neither is the aftermath.
Moscow likes to claim that foreign ships or aircraft in its vicinity have changed course and retreated when challenged, as Russia needs to tell its people two stories: that it is under threat from a dangerous, aggressive west, but also that Russia itself is strong and can protect itself and see off unwelcome intruders. This leads it to carry out aggressive and dangerous manoeuvres close to western aircraft and ships on and above the seas around Russia.
So in any encounter with Russia of this kind, it’s inevitable there will be conflicting versions of what happened. Experts point out that if Russia really did fire warning shots, they would almost certainly have released a video of the encounter. Gunfire in the area, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) says, was part of a pre-planned Russian naval exercise several miles away. Russia also says it dropped bombs in the path of Defender – a claim the UK says it “does not recognise”.
After years of disinformation, the Russian version of any given incident is automatically suspect. But it’s also important for the UK to get its own story straight. Certainly today’s bland statements from the MoD press office have been in stark contrast to descriptions by a BBC correspondent on board Defender. According to his report, Russian aircraft were making close passes, there were warnings over the radio that the ship would be fired on, and Defender had been harassed by vessels of Russia’s Coast Guard – which, unlike their British or American counterparts, belong to the FSB intelligence agency.
Russia has claimed Crimea as its own since it seized the peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014. Western countries don’t recognise that claim. The UK could have sent Defender through waters off Crimea specifically to make that point – and that’s probably why the UK says Defender was passing through Ukrainian waters, while Russia claims it was intruding on its own territory.
But either way, It is probable Defender had every right to be where it was without harassment by Russia. The “innocent passage” phrase we will be hearing a lot of over the next few days refers to the right to pass through another state’s territorial waters, no matter which state it may be. It’s the same principle the west insisted on, and Moscow resisted, during the Cold War – which, on at least one occasion, led to Soviet warships ramming American vessels that were doing exactly the same thing, in the same place, as HMS Defender was today.
The UK will also have been well aware of today’s timing – during the annual Moscow Security Conference, a high-profile gathering of military and intelligence bigwigs from Russia and its friends where the threat of the implacably hostile west is always a major theme. Today’s incident will give them plenty to talk about – but the chances of it being an honest conversation are probably slim.
Keir Giles is senior consulting fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House