In the aftermath of HMS Defender’s freedom of navigation operation off Crimea there have been intense reactions in the West against perceived Russian misinformation – or “disinformation”, depending on your flavor.
The attention has particularly focused on the question of whether or not Russian ships and aircraft fired warning shots at the British destroyer. Official Russian sources claimed that they had fired warning shots, but the UK Ministry of Defence refused that any such incident took place. Instead, they tweeted the following message:
Since then, the internet has been overflooded with cautions about Russian misinformation regarding these warning shots. The assumption seems to have beed that the UK government is more trustworthy than their Russian counterparts, and therefore the Russians must be lying.
But frankly we are chasing the wrong kind of misinformation here. To paraphrase Hanlon’s razor, we should never attribute to misinformation that which is adequately explained by clumsiness. It is extremely far-fetched that the Russian ships would engage in gunnery practice in the middle of an encounter with HMS Defender and after giving verbal warnings over radio that they would open fire. It is much more plausible that the Russians wanted to fire warning shots but just did a poor job.
It seems the Russian coastguard forgot to consider the fact that a British type 45 destroyer can sail really fast, and that they didn’t have a plan for what to do if the Brits decided to leave their obnoxious FSB companions behind. Therefore we got a sorry excuse for warning shots where the Russian ships were stuck behind the British destroyer and had no way to get into a decent firing position. But that is not misinformation. That is just a bad performance.
And while the West has been busy discussing the warning shots, the actual Russian misinformation plot has gone almost unnoticed. It is so successful that Western journalists happily repeat the Russian talking points without questioning their validity.
So what is this successful Russian misinformation plot? It is the idea that it is illegal for a foreign warship to sail through Russian territorial waters. This narrative has been repeated in countless iterations in Western media without critical scrutiny. One such example is this article from Reuters under the title “Kremlin says ‘provocations’ like UK warship episode demand tough response”:
A British warship’s entry into what Moscow considers Russian territorial waters near Crimea last month is the kind of provocation that demands a tough response, the Kremlin said on Sunday.
President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia, which fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of the warship to chase it out of Black Sea waters off the coast of Crimea, could have sunk the warship.
Moscow challenged the right of HMS Defender to pass through waters near Crimea, something London said it had every right to do. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 but most of the world still recognises it as part of Ukraine.
The premise is blatantly wrong. The journalistically right thing to do would be to explain what UNCLOS says about innocent passage, and that Russia’s argument is extremely weak. But instead Western media has been content to repeat a message suggesting that the legality of HMS Defender’s passage depends on how one looks at Crimea.
It is utmost convenient for Russia that the public discussion is reduced to a familiar disagreement about whether Crimea is Ukrainian or Russian. It frames the argument in a familiar dichotomy and relieves the Russian leadership of the obligation to explain their actions in the Black Sea.
The question journalists should be asking is what legal difference it makes whether HMS Defender made innocent passage in Ukrainian or Russian territorial waters. The answer is: absolutely none. But instead they have swallowed the Russian talking points, which essentially establish the precedent that international law does not apply in Russian territorial waters.
This is classical misinformation. And Western journalists were so busy chasing the wrong bit of misinformation that they fell for the real deceit.