HMS Defender entered the Black Sea knowing it would be an eventful visit. Between friendly port stops in Ukraine and Georgia, passing by the tense region of Russian-occupied Crimea was bound to be a serious business.
Moscow likes to claim that foreign ships or aircraft in its vicinity change course and retreat when challenged by Russian forces. It is usually a fiction, but 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 not only to carry out aggressive and dangerous manoeuvres close to Western aircraft and ships on and above the seas around Russia, but also to concoct fanciful stories about the supposed power and reach of Russian weapons, including in the Black Sea.
Conflicting accounts inevitable
It follows that in any encounter with Russia of this kind, conflicting versions of what really happened are inevitable. Experts pointed out that if Russia really did fire warning shots, it would almost certainly be releasing video of the encounter. Gunfire in the area, according to the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD), was part of a pre-planned Russian naval exercise several miles away. Russia also says it dropped bombs in the path of HMS Defender – a claim the UK ‘does not recognize’.
After years of deceit and disinformation, the Russian version of any given incident is automatically suspect. But it is also important for the UK to get its own story straight.
The MOD is habitually secretive about the hostile actions undertaken by Russia’s armed forces against the UK and its armed forces – at sea, in the air and in cyber and electromagnetic warfare. On this occasion, though, it had given journalists a front-row seat by allowing them to join HMS Defender for the most sensitive part of its mission.
In stark contrast to the MOD press office’s bland statements downplaying the incident, breathless first-hand descriptions by a BBC correspondent on board reported close passes by Russian aircraft, radio warnings that the ship would be fired on, and that HMS Defender was harassed by vessels of Russia’s coastguard which – unlike its British or American counterparts – belongs to the FSB intelligence agency.
The credibility of the UK’s armed forces relies on honest and truthful reporting of their activities; pretending nothing is happening when it plainly is, is a habit that its defence ministry really should leave to the Russians.
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 HMS Defender through waters off Crimea specifically to make that point – and that is probably why the UK says HMS Defender was passing through Ukrainian waters, while Russia claims it was intruding on its own territory.
But either way, it is likely that HMS Defender had every right to be where it was without harassment by Russia. The ‘innocent passage’ phrase which will be heard a lot over the next few days refers to the right to pass through another state’s territorial waters, no matter which state it may be.
This is the same principle the West insisted on – and Moscow resisted – during the Cold War, which led on at least one occasion to Soviet warships ramming American vessels doing exactly the same thing, in the same place, as HMS Defender was this week.
The UK will also have been aware that the timing of this incident came during the annual Moscow Security Conference – a high-profile gathering of military and intelligence bigwigs from Russia and its friends where the supposed threat of an implacably hostile West is always a major theme. This Black Sea incident will give them plenty to talk about – but the chances of it being an honest conversation are slim.
This is a version of an article first published in The Independent.