Another Black Sea region incident is evidence that the summit between Biden and Putin did nothing to reduce tensions. Ukraine and Crimea remain a potential arena for clashes between the West and Russia.
The British destroyer HMS Defender, on its way from Odessa to Georgia as part of a Freedom of Navigation operation, was harassed on June 23 by a Russian naval vessel and fighter aircraft off the coast of Crimea. British resolve was on display as the destroyer stayed her course despite close buzzing by Russian 70s-era Sukhoi SU-24 Fencer aircraft.
The British made their point about freedom of navigation: “We don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, it was illegal. Therefore, these are Ukrainian waters, and it was entirely right to use them to go from A to B,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on June 24. To add to Johnson’s statement referring to the Royal Navy transit, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, U.S. Army (retired) and former commander of U.S. Army Europe, asserted: “This was really [an] important step in communicating to the Kremlin that their claims to Crimea are in fact illegal. And that nobody in the world recognizes those claims, and therefore, these waters are Ukrainian waters, exactly as the Royal Navy said yesterday [June 23].”
Though the Russian media claimed that its military vessels and aircraft chased the British away with warning shots and by dropping “warning bombs,” video from the deck of HMS Defender showed no such activities.
The View From the Deck
Jonathan Beal, onboard the British ship, reporting for the BBC, recounted in real-time as the Russians attempted to force the British warship to alter its course. The bridge of the HMS Defender was on high alert, leaving Odessa as a Russian destroyer shadowed it. As it rounded Cape Fiolent at the southern tip of Crimea, one of two Russian coast guard vessels harassing the Royal Navy ship moved in dangerously close to Defender. As Beal tells it:
“Two Russian coastguard ships that were shadowing the Royal Navy warship tried to force it to alter its course. At one stage, one of the Russian vessels closed into about 100m. Increasingly hostile warnings were issued over the radio – including one that said, ‘if you don’t change course, I’ll fire.’ We did hear some firing in the distance, but they were believed to be well out of range. As HMS Defender sailed through the shipping lane, it was buzzed by Russian jets. The Captain, Vincent Owen, said the ship detected more than 20 military aircraft nearby.”
Nonetheless, the Royal Navy warship activities were frenetic for a few moments; the bridge went to action stations. The crew donned combat gear and took their places on the bridge, should the Russian ships decide to fire on Defender. However, that didn’t happen, and despite the bluster from the Russians, HMS Defender continued on her way.
Russian Claims of Victory
The failure to prevent the British warship from operating in international waters did not stop the Russians from attempting to salvage some propaganda value from the event. The Russian government called the Defender’s transit a “dangerous action” and a “gross violation” of UN laws of the seas and conventions and demanded an investigation. According to Aljazeera, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that:
“HMS Defender ‘was given a preliminary warning that weapons would be used if the state borders of the Russian Federation were violated. It did not react to the warning… A border patrol ship fired the warning shots while an SU-24 jet dropped four bombs in HMS Defender’s path, prompting the British vessel to turn around.”
In reality, the destroyer did not “turn around” and no such bombing activity took place. To add gravitas to the Russian government’s pique over the incident, Russia’s news outlet TASS reported: “The British defense attaché in Moscow has been summoned regarding the incident.” Later, according to Beal, a tweet from the Russian embassy in London attempted to shame the Brits with “HMS Defender turns HMS Provocateur and violates Russian border. Not exactly a ‘routine’ transit, is it?”
The UK showed its resolve in this face-off with the Russians. When the U.S. had an opportunity back in April to exert its rightful freedom of the seas by transiting the Dardanelles Strait into the Black Sea, the Biden administration demurred.
Will the US Step Up?
Whether the U.S. can maintain this engaged-nonengagement and retain credibility among the NATO allies and European partners is unlikely. As Defense One reported, the HMS Defender incident “happened just days before the start of the annual SEA BREEZE 2021 maritime exercise in the Black Sea, co-hosted by the United States and Ukraine.” Thirty-two countries will be participating.
The objective is interoperability and improving capability among units engaged in the exercise. “It’s also about deterrence,” Hodges explained. “The whole point is not only to improve capability but to demonstrate that the Black Sea is international water. It is not Russia’s lake; it’s nobody’s lake; it’s international water. But you have to enforce that.” The U.S. can make this message clear, but will the Biden administration step up – or do what the British refused to do and shrink from Russian threats?
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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