Here are a few quick thoughts on yesterday’s incident where Russian ships and aircraft fired warning shots on the British destroyer HMS Defender off Crimea.
This was a deliberate freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) by the Royal Navy. HMS Defender purposefully transited closer than 12 nautical miles from Crimea. This point is important to stress because a surprising number of open source forensics have thrown their resources into proving where the incident took place. So to be clear: Both countries confirm that HMS Defender was about 10 nautical miles from the coast on the territorial waters connected to Crimea. What they don’t agree on is what happened.
The United Kingdom says they conducted innocent passage of the territorial waters in accordance with international law (i.e. UNCLOS). They then added the contentious remark that the innocent passage took place in Ukrainian territorial waters. It’s easy to understand why they felt the urge to add that statement, but unfortunately it has caused confusion as to what the legal dispute is about. The British actually helped Russia off the legal hook by playing into the narrative that the right to innocent passage depends on how you look at the status of Crimea. It doesn’t.
Russia on the other hand say that HMS Defender did something illegal by passing their territorial waters. They have not bothered to explain why that was illegal. It was as predictable as sunrise that the British would conduct this FONOP. The three temporary prohibition zones that Russia established around Crimea in April are such a blatant violation of maritime law that it was impossible to ignore. I wrote about it here.
So while the similar operation last October with HMS Dragon was significant, this time around there were even more compelling reasons for FONOPS. It was almost mandatory that HMS Defender would perform an innocent passage off the Southern tip of Crimea during their stay in the Black Sea. So predictable was it that someone spoofed MarineTraffic a few days in advance to indicate that the FONOP was already happening.
This bit of misinformation on MarineTraffic told the Royal Navy that the Russian Coastguard was ready for them. It gave the crew on HMS Defender a few things to think about while otherwise enjoying their portstay in Odessa.
A bit of confusion arose as to what exactly happened at sea during the passage. From the Russian side the report was that their ships fired warning shots at HMS Defender and that aircraft dropped bombs in their line of transit. The British – somewhat bizarrely – proclaimed that they observed the Russian ships performing a gunnery exercise but did not interpret it as connected to their passage. Apparently the British MoD wants us to believe that Russian ships while engaged in operations to expel a foreign trespasser also simultaneously decided to conduct internal drills. Incidentally BBC correspondent Jonathan Beale was embedded on HMS Defender during the transit, and he verified that the Russians did indeed fire warning shots.
No matter how you twist the questions, the British had the law on their side. Regardless of whether Crimea is Russian or Ukrainian, international law ensures the right to innocent passage. It would therefore be unlawful for Russia to hinder the passage of HMS Defender, even if you take the Russian perspective. So ironically we have the Russians claiming that they themselves broke international law when firing warning shots, and the British claiming that Russia did nothing wrong. It’s a curious game of reversed finger pointing.
This indicates that the real audience in this matter is internal to Russia. Someone wants to look important and tough. As I wrote in this piece about HMS Dragon, a good guess is that this story benefits people like first deputy director of FSB and leader of Russia’s border control service Vladimir Kulishov. However, for the story to work in a domestic Russian context it also demanded that nothing actually escalated beyond control. It is paramount to look like you play a vital role in defending Russia’s borders against foreign intruders, but you cannot create real trouble by stirring an armed confrontation with the United Kingdom.
So how did the Russian coastguard manage to look tough while also controlling escalation? The answer is in the force posture. According to Beale’s report, there were two Russian FSB vessels and some 20 aircraft engaged against HMS Defender. The fighter jets apparently flew some aggressive profiles, but obviously the Russian’s were not going to actually engage the capable British anti-air warfare destroyer from the air.
So the only assets that could meaningfully interfere with HMS Defender’s passage were two coastguard vessels. The British warship overmatches the FSB ships in every possible sense. It’s faster, bigger, and has a far superior weapons package. There is no way the Russian coastguard could direct their fire to engage HMS Defender directly. Judging by the track on MarineTraffic, it looks like the coastguard vessels initially caused HMS Defender to change course a few times. Then the British warship increased speed to 27 knots for a while before reducing to a comfortable cruising speed with the Russians in their wake. I also believe that’s what we see in this image:
In other words, the Russians were careful to calibrate the level of pressure so HMS Defender would not feel really threatened.
At the end of the day I think both sides were happy about the outcome. The United Kingdom sent an important message about freedom of movement at sea, and the Russians got the confrontation they wanted for a domestic audience without running a significant risk.