Last week, first deputy director of FSB and leader of Russia’s border control service Vladimir Kulishov made some noticeable comments to RIA Novosti about an incident in October 2020 involving the British destroyer HMS Dragon.
The British warship crossed the territorial waters off Crimea in what must be characterized as a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOPS). This fact has been know for some time. In December, deputy minister of defense Alexander Fomin revealed that the British warship had crossed into Russian territorial waters1 off Crimea close to Sevastopol, but he didn’t give much further information.
But according to Kulishov, it was a rather intense encounter between HMS Dragon and units from the Russian coastguard (FSB), navy and air force. As he explained to RIA Novosti:
“On 13 October, the British anti-air destroyer D35 Dragon entered Russian territorial waters close to the tip Khersones in the Black Sea, claiming the right to innocent passage. They did this despite receiving warnings that it would be illegal to enter Russian territorial waters. Upon receiving directions to leave Russian territory immediately, the captain of the destroyer claimed there was a bad radio connection. As a result of a joint effort of the coastguard, navy and air force, the British warship was driven out into neutral waters.”
The British Ministry of Defence responded with af comment, essentially confirming that the passage took place but refusing any claims that their warship was intimidated or driven out. According to Reuters, the statement was:
“The Russian Federation Navy did not impede HMS Dragon’s passage. She navigated without incident, exercising our right of innocent passage under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” an MOD spokesperson said.
“HMS Dragon was taking the most direct route between two port visits, navigating a recognised safe route for all international shipping within Ukrainian waters.”
What to make of this?
The following may be on the speculative side, but I do have a few comments to make. I think it’s fair to assume that HMS Dragon was not driven out by the Russian coastguard or navy. They probably continued their journey and exited the territorial sea at the planned waypoint. It also seems plausible that Russian ships and aircraft performed a variety of dangerous maneuvers to harass the British warship and make the passage as nerve-racking as possible. That’s how these things are done.
An inherent problem of FONOPS is that by design the ship conducting the operation leaves the area after passing through. This means that the “defending” party can always claim to have rejected or scared away the intruder. It is therefore not surprising that Russia chooses this interpretation of the events.
What is remarkable, though, is the incoherence of various Russian arguments over time. Kulishov’s interpretation of how international law functioned around Crimea in October 2020 doesn’t make any sense in the light of the prohibition zones that Russia later established in April 2021. According to these, the right to innocent passage is temporarily suspended for foreign warships and government ships in certain areas around Crimea from April 2021 to October 2021.
As I have pointed out, these zones are illegal according to international law for several reason. The right to innocent passage is indisputable, regardless if the waters are Ukrainian or Russian. The point here, however, is that the temporary prohibition zones also contradict Kulishov’s claim that innocent passage was illegal in October of 2020. If it were illegal then, why did Russia make it illegal again half a year later?
The argument doesn’t make logical sense, which may seem surprising. Vladimir Kulishov is after all the head of Russia’s border control agency, and one would assume he has a basic understanding of these concepts. More likely, he just doesn’t care if the arguments are coherent, as long as they provide the desired bravado.
Power struggle in Moscow as an explanation
So why did Kulishov give this interview to RIA Novosti? I’m not at all an expert in Kremlinology, but I do believe the answer should be found there somewhere. The incoherence of Kulishov’s arguments and the fact that the British government already know the actual circumstances of the incident suggest that the real recipient of the message is not the outside world.
As Mark Galeotti has pointed out in his podcast, reshuffles in the institutional leadership tend to bring with them instability and rivalries as individuals try to position themselves and demonstrate their relevance. Kulishov’s boss, FSB director Alexander Bortnikov will celebrate his 70th birthday this November. Bortnikov seems on his way out, and his successor seems already lined up in the shape of first deputy director Sergey Korolev.
Vladimir Kulishov is a young man by standards of Russian siloviki – only 63 years old. He has several years to go before retirement. So a good guess is that Kulishov’s statements should be seen in the light of an internal power struggle in the Moscow security apparatus: It helps demonstrate his value and strength as the foremost protector of Russia’s borders.
This angle also provides an interesting perspective on the prohibition zones in the Black Sea. If the leader of Russia’s border control agency has a personal interest in drawing attention to himself, we should expect trouble around the borders in the coming period. What better way to demonstrate efficiency and a heavy hand than arresting a couple of Ukrainian warships or taking responsibility for rejecting a Western violation of the territorial sea off Crimea?
The bad news for the West is that this increases the likelihood of confrontations with the Russian coastguard in the coming months. The good news is that Kulishov would be utmost concerned not to cause public embarrassment or real trouble for the boss (i.e. Putin). The whole point is to look good in the media, not to actually confront the West over abstract principles of maritime law. Sometimes things aren’t about the West, even when they involve the West.
So new Western FONOPS to challenge Russia’s rather ridiculous interpretation of maritime law off Crimea will likely play out in much the same way as with HMS Dragon: Russia will harass and make a fuss about it, the warship will leave at the territorial waters at the planned exit point, and both sides will declare success in the little spectacle of naval diplomacy.
- Of course most countries do not accept that these waters are Russian, since the annexation of Crimea was illegal. ↩