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Opinion: The real reason Putin targeted HMS Defender

24 June 2021

Claims that Russia’s Border Guard ships fired warning shots at HMS Defender, reinforces the sense of Russia being not the kind of mature great power Vladimir Putin tried to present at Geneva, says Honorary Professor Mark Galeotti (UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies).

Professor Mark Galeotti

When military personnel talk of ‘theatres’ they mean a zone of conflict. Moscow seems to take the term increasingly literally, though, regarding spin as an essential tool of martial statecraft.

This was especially visible in yesterday's claims that its Border Guard ships fired warning shots and Black Sea Fleet Su-24 bombers dropped OFAB-250 fragmentation bombs because the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender ‘intruded’ onto Russia’s ‘territorial waters.’ After which, Moscow smugly noted, Defender ‘left’ those waters.

Except that very little of that seems to be true. First of all, the waters in question were off Cape Fiolent, at the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula. By international law, the waters off Crimea are certainly not Russian, because its annexation has no international standing. (Even Belarus’s Lukashenko, who is now so dependent on Moscow, hasn’t recognised it.)

Defender’s mission was in part a so-called FONOP, a Freedom of Navigation Operation, intended to signal that Russia’s land- (and sea-) grab was not going to be recognised. After all, military forces are also political instruments. The deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group, from which Defender had briefly split to carry out its Black Sea mission was explicitly framed by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace as ‘projecting our influence [and] signalling our power.’

Defender was also signalling continued support for Kyiv, doubly important at a time when Ukraine’s bid for Nato membership is still in limbo, as well as Britain’s role as a guarantor of the international order.

So this was a conflict of posture and propaganda. When the deployment started, I wrote for the Council on Geostrategy that:

'Presuming that HMS Defender does more than poke its prow into the Black Sea, a Russian response which combines heightened rhetoric with perhaps some military theatrics, from low passes by Russian jets to close encounters with ships, can be expected.'

The Kremlin did not disappoint. First of all, the AIS (automatic identification system) signals of Defender and a Dutch frigate, the HNLMS Evertsen, were spoofed to make it look as if they had set sail from Odesa and were aggressively heading straight for the Russian Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol; in fact, they were still in port. Although no proof has been presented that Moscow was behind it, that seems the understandable assumption in both London and Amsterdam.

Now, as they have in the past, Moscow is claiming to have driven the Royal Navy away by aggressive operations. Yet a BBC journalist on the Defender says that while distant gunshots were heard, there was no sign of any bombing. Given that a pre-notified Russian gunnery exercise was being held nearby, that seems more likely to explain any such noises.

Of course, the destroyer was shadowed by Russian ships and overflown by aircraft, but that is par for the course. So too are claims of a robust response that seems to have been a distinct over-statement of the facts. However, claims of warning bombing are not so commonplace.

What might explain this rhetorical explanation? Britain is undoubtedly both more assertive than other European powers in challenging Russia in such theatres (however you want to define the term) and also a safer proxy for Moscow. At a time when it may be less willing to pick a fight with the USA, Britain is not only genuinely seen as a dangerous rival, behind everything from destabilising Belarus to backing opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but is a safer target for some breast-beating machismo.

Of course, it is also dangerous for Moscow, not least as this kind of posturing may be intended to project strength of will. In practice, it simply reinforces the sense of Russia being not the kind of mature great power Vladimir Putin tried to present at Geneva, but erratic and vindictive.

Indeed, at the recent Putin-Biden summit, the Russians were unexpectedly diplomatic and effective, and the hand of their foreign ministry, which for years has been largely sidelined, may have been at work. The Defender incident could be the more hawkish interests – and it is worth noting that the Border Guards are under the control of the FSB political police service – pushing back and reasserting their worldview, one in which Russia is under constant pressure and will only survive if it shows strength. Once again, it’s all about politics.

This article was originally published in The Spectator on 24 June 2021.