UK-Russian naval dispute: both sides will claim victory

Analysis: Royal Navy ship sailing near Crimea may also be test of Beijing reaction to territorial reach

British ministers will have been under no illusions that the decision to sail HMS Defender into disputed waters off the coast of Russian-annexed Crimea would provoke a reaction from the Kremlin.

A dispute about whether warning shots were fired or not is beside the point – although if they were, they were miles out of range. Because even if the west considers Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014, to be still part of Ukraine, the Russians do not and will act accordingly.

It was no surprise, in fact quite routine, for the Russians to have closely shadowed the British warship as it passed near Crimea, with aircraft buzzing overhead, helping to produce a dramatic report for the BBC’s defence correspondent on board.

Route of HMS Defender up to Wednesday afternoon
Route of HMS Defender up to Wednesday afternoon

Such confrontations have their own rules and rhythm. Russian jets routinely fly near UK airspace, testing the speed of British air defences. There is never normally any prospect of live gunfire, but the activity exercises pilots on both sides.

However, this time there has been no shortage of other irritations for the Russians. The Kremlin likes to consider the Black Sea as its naval back yard, but the west is working increasingly closely to reinforce neighbouring Ukraine, still locked in conflict with its larger neighbour in its eastern Donbas region.

London and Kyiv this week signed a naval cooperation deal onboard HMS Defender, in Odesa, promising to jointly work on eight new warships and build a new naval base on the Black Sea. Among those present on the British side were the junior defence minister Jeremy Quin and the first sea lord, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin.

A reaction from the Kremlin on Wednesday would therefore have been doubly expected, although the Ministry of Defence appears to have been caught slightly off guard by the initial Russian claims. Denying that shots were fired gave the impression the Kremlin was engaged in a disinformation exercise, when perhaps it was simply guilty of exaggeration because the shots were further away.

Both sides will be able to claim their own victories: the Russians say they chased the British warship out of their waters; HMS Defender left after an hour or so, as was always intended. Britain will argue that it was defending an important principle during the short trip – freedom of navigation, including the right of “innocent passage” within the 12-mile territorial limit.

In many ways the intended audience was not the Kremlin but Beijing. Towards the end of the summer the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will lead a multinational fleet through the South China Sea, where China has an increasing number of territorial claims extending up to 1,200 miles from its mainland.

British experts, such as former rear admiral Chris Parry, argue that “the sea is the physical equivalent of the world wide web” and that it is the job of the UK and other western nations “to keep the footpaths open by using them”.

The reality is that China’s maritime power is growing fast, as is the west’s desire to respond to it. Which means that such confrontations at sea are likely to happen many times yet.


Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

The GuardianTramp

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