HMS Defender made headlines in Crimea this week and, although the incident should not be downplayed, it was no more than the repetition of an established pattern of behaviour. The Russian Bear is a febrile toddler, running hot. Rash in its actions, constantly pushing the boundaries of international law and the jurisdictions of other nations to see what responses it will receive and how far it can go.
HMS Defender was sailing legally and peacefully through Ukrainian territorial waters on passage to Georgia when it was warned by the Russian Navy to change course. Russia had decided to interpret our ship’s route as an act of aggression and a provocation. It isn’t much of an incident on the face of it, but it speaks to wider truths about Russia.
Russia is desperate to exude strength and might. A similar incident took place last October, when Russia falsely claims to have expelled HMS Dragon from its waters, which were, in fact, international shipping routes. Like the incident this week, Russia’s version of events left much to be desired and was constructed to promote a narrative of Russian strength and defence of Russian ‘territories’ in defiance of a Western foe. The audience? Putin’s allies at home. Russia will desperately reach for any opportunity to cast itself as a powerful defender of the greater Russian empire and a nation not crippled by kleptocracy and increasing inconsequence.
The difference between last October and this week’s incident is that Russia escalated its response. The reasons only Russia will know, but I would venture that this was a test of whether we would abandon our course when faced with a more aggressive stance.
It is a regular state of affairs that Russia seeks to test our reactions. Currently, Russia does not distinguish between being at war or at peace. It is in a constant state of preparation for any potential threat or offensive action. For example, Russia flies its Bear fighter jets along our North Sea coast regularly. The jets skirt our airspace in order to assess the effectiveness of our monitoring and our responses. Do we spot them? Do we deploy our Typhoons in response? Where from? And how quickly? A hypocrisy of the highest order is Russia’s happy transiting of the Dover straits on a regular basis. We all remember the scenes of that ageing hulk, the Admiral Kutzekov, being escorted out of UK waters in 2014. This is about more than fleet and aircraft movements, for the mobilisation of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders was equally an intelligence gathering exercise for the Russian state – albeit a far, far more dangerous one, which risked escalating to conflict, but from which Putin thankfully stepped back.
Russian aggression towards our ships is just another line on the charge sheet that reinforces why the Government has identified Russia as the ‘most acute threat’ to the UK’s security. From terrorist acts with the murders of British citizens in Salisbury and Russian defectors in the UK to the murders of dissidents across Europe and in Russia, cyber attacks and explosions in Prague earlier this year. To hostile acts to destabilise other countries with the destruction of Syria for influence, access and profiteering, and the waging of conflict in Africa by cut-outs of the Russian state. And of course the illegal invasions and occupations of Ukraine and Georgia. The Russian state threatens the stability and safety of our people at home and abroad.
This week Russian Navy could have chosen to allow the UK to pass peacefully through Ukrainian waters, yet it sought to exploit the short waterway for a stunt and to test our mettle. Russia failed to scare our Royal Navy. HMS Defender was in Ukrainian territorial waters – rightly the UK does not recognise the illegal occupation of Crimea – and went about its passage through those waters peacefully. The UK does not bow to bullies, and our warships operate legally and with propriety at all times; albeit without a global positioning livestream providing our exact locations to the world at all times, as the Liberal Democrats proposed this week that we should!
We must stand firm in future dealings with Russia. When Russia aggressively undermines international law and institutions, we must actively defend them. Taking a steer from Commander Owen on Wednesday, our mission with Russia must be to be confident but non-confrontational. And we must not falter.