On June 23rd, H.M.S. Defender of the Royal Navy, sailed from the Ukrainian port of Odessa on passage to the Georgian port of Batumi. This would take it across the Black Sea, covering 1,000 km from Northwest to Southeast. To do so requires navigating around Crimea, held by Russia and claimed by Ukraine, and therefore a sensitive area in politics and diplomacy. Russia claims territorial waters around Crimea up to the international standard of just under 20 km. By plotting its course to swing further West and South, Defender had plenty of sea room to avoid even approaching that distance from Crimea. But the ship chose not to and ‘cut the corner’, entering coastal waters near Cape Florient to a depth of some 3 km.
H.M.S. Defender (flag code: D36) is among the RN’s most capable ships in defending herself. At 8,500 tons and capable of over 30 knots, she is one of six modern Type 45 Daring class destroyers,whose primary role is to provide air defence, using the Sea Viper anti-air missile system.
The response from the Russians was swift and firm. A coastal patrol boat intercepted Defender, demanded several times that she left territorial waters, trying to force her further out before opening fire on the sea well ahead of their course. Several SU-24M Russian strike aircraft flew overhead, at least one dropping bombs, again well clear and another ‘buzzing’ the ship—passing low over it within a few hundred metres. Defender’s crew went to action stations but did not return fire. No-one was hurt; no damage was done before she was back out in international waters. But the real question is why she left them in the first place.
The RN is too professional for mistakes like this. The weather was clear; the coast was visible; the navigation aids were all functional. The captain, Commander Vince Owen has 20 years’ service and had been with the ship over a year. This wasn’t an error or misjudgement. Owen had orders to do this. The Amiralty would not have provoked such an incident without approval from Downing Street. The fact that a BBC reporter and camera team, plus other journalists were on board to witness this confirms this was a stunt, a deliberate poking of the Russian bear to see how he would react. It’s doubtful they let any Allies know—the same Allies trying to build bridges to Putin, including Biden’s recent meeting.
The rationale is not too hard to guess. After the Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago, the residual Russian state realised that its Black Sea Fleet and main naval base at Sevastopol would be controlled by Ukraine, which had declared itself an independent state after centuries of Russian control. Clashes between the two in the Donbas region led to Russia seizing all Crimea in 2014. This was deplored internationally and Russia’s hold on it acknowledged by few.
Beyond unjustified military force, there are some arguments to support Tussia;s case. Not only is Sevastopol their second-biggest naval base and the only one with year-round warm water access, but almost 70% of the inhabitants are Russian, with only 17% Ukrainian and 10% Tartar Cossacks.
The West has, understandably, deplored such Russian high-handedness. But they have set about wooing Ukraine into their orbit, even discussing NATO membership, without showing how they could intervene effectively that far to the East. Such talk has upset the Russians, to whom they believe both Ukraine and Byelorussia rightly belong, as their inclusion in the Tsar’s domain had predated the United Kingdom. To even reasonable ussians, having Ukraine in NATO would be like the UK having to watch France join the Warsaw Pact at the height of the Cold War. If this seems exaggeration, read up on invasion by Karl Gustav’s Swedes, Napoleon’s Grande Armee, the Kaiser and Hitler’s Wehrmacht and the devastation they left. They have reasons to be touchy.
So, when Defender shows the flag in Odessa, in part to bolster sales of arms and corvettes to the Ukrainians for their defence against Russia, things are already growing tense. But, when she gets orders, as must have been the case, to bolster Ukraine’s claim to Crimea and its territorial waters by sailing through them, we have a demonstration of cold-war-era brinkmanship we have not seen in decades.
At home, this may been seen to boost Tory ambitions to present Britaon as a resurgent global power post-Brexit, it is playing with diplomatic firs and people’s lives. Because the Russians are no pushovers, have long been master chess players and in Chechnya and Syria, as well as Cromea and Donbas, don’t give much of a hoot whose toes they tread on.
Had this been 30 years ago, a fleet badly maintained and trained by a bankupt Soviet Union might not have posed such a threat. But, since the Rurrians again took over Cromea, there is a new sheriff in town. The fleet now includes six attack submarines, six Admiral Grigorovich class frigates and three flotillas of missile corvettes from the Steregushchiy, Karakurt and Buyan-M classes. All these support the cruiser Moskva and at least four amphibious landing ships.
Together with expensive land-based air and advanced missile batteries are capable of taking on the Royal Navy, let alone a single destroyer, however modern. Hat such a force dominates the Black Sea is confirmed by the US Navy, whose Sixth Fleet does not venture its mughty aircraft carriers anywhere near. They content themselves with a couple of detached destroyers (currently USS Roosevelt and USS Donald Cook) which are there more to reassure the Turks than anything else. American posture should it come to a shooting war in the region is to fly stand-off cruise missiles from B-52s and keep ships out of harm’s way.
Someone should tell the Tories: the days when the appearance of a British gunboat would cow the natives are long gone. Which makes you shudder at the insouciance with which this government beards the Russians. Whatever we may think of their claim to Crimea, they are convinced it’s theirs. As a result they are perfectly capable, both morally and militarily, of sinking any vessel that tries another such stunt, and of riding the subsequent diplomatic row with calm aplomb. Britain would also not win friends among NATO allies, plus the loss of £1bn it cost to build, plus its 191 crew, not to mention sundry reporters or film crews brought along for the scoop.
A type 45 destroyer costs us all £46ma each year to run. There must be better and more sensible things we could do with it.