HMS Defender in the Black Sea: The Disinformation War. At midday on the 23rd of June 2021, British Destroyer HMS Defender, transiting from Odessa in Ukraine to Georgia, sailed along shipping lanes that would take her near Cape Fiolent in Crimea. A confrontation between the Russian and the British ensued.
What followed was a (dis)information war between Russian and British MoDs that went on to last all day. Ironically, Jonathan Beale, a BBC reporter, was onboard HMS Defender during the incident and the video and report he later submitted to the BBC somewhat contradicts the version of the events supported by British officials.
The Russian Narrative
The Russian MoD posted the following statement online: “At 11.52 on June the 23rd, British Navy Destroyer HMS Defender operating in the Northwest part of the Black Sea crossed the state border of the Russian Federation and entered the territorial sea in the area of Cape Fiolent. The British Destroyer received a (radio) warning about the use of weapons in the event of a violation of the Russian state border but did not respond to it. At 12.06 and 12.08, FSB patrol ships (border guards) fired warning shots. At 12.19, a Su-24M carried out a warning bombing by dropping four OFAB-250 bombs ahead of the course taken by HMS Defender. At 12.23, thanks to the joint action of the Black Sea Fleet and the FSB Border Service, HMS Defender left the territorial waters of the Russian Federation”.
Russian embassy in the UK tweeted: “HMS Defender turns HMS Provocateur and violates Russian border. Not exactly a ‘routine’ transit, is it?”
The British Narrative (MoD)
A British MoD source told BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale that HMS Defender was not there to pick a fight but to make a point: “…That is to assert its right to freedom of navigation in international waters”.
The MoD Press Office tweeted “We believe the Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the Black Sea and provided the maritime community with prior-warning of their activity. No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognise the claim that bombs were dropped in her path”.
Chairman of the Common’s Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood said Russia was conducting exercises in the vicinity while HMS Defender sailed by. “By following shipping lanes close to (occupied) Crimea, HMS Defender represented a NATO push back against an assertive Russia and a demonstration of Great Britain’s willingness to protect and uphold international order”. He said the BBC’s video “denied the Russian disinformation narrative”
What the BBC report showed
(BBC journalist) Jonathan Beale was onboard the ship as she sailed along the Crimean coast. HMS Defender went to Action Station upon leaving Odessa and was immediately shadowed by a Russian Navy ship that seemed to have been waiting for her. When Jonathan Beale discusses the ship’s planned route with HMS Defender’s Lieutenant Commander Ben Dorrington, the latter admits that the said route is “a contention point” as it cuts through waters that are claimed by Russia. Ben Dorrington adds that he expects a ”belligerent” Russian posture. When asked by the BBC journalist if sailing HMS Defender so close to Crimea could be seen as a belligerent act by the Russians, he responds “They might take that view”.
The following scene shows a FSB Border guard ship coming within 100 metres of HMS Defender. The British ship is hailed by the FSB over a radio channel and one can clearly hear “If you do not change course, I will fire. Do you read me, over?!”. HMS Defender’s sailors are seen donning their anti-flash masks while one can see a damage-party crew assembling near the bridge. Soon after, you can hear gun fire in the distance. The journalist says they were out of range.
Commander Vince Owen, the ship’s captain, tells Jonathan Beale that the aim of this exercise was “To call out Russia as it does not respect international order”, adding that his mission was “confident and non-confrontational”.
The camera shows a Su-24 buzzing HMS Defender. Jonathan Beale states that over 20 Russian military aircraft are being tracked in the vicinity of the British ship.
What has really happened?
HMS Defender followed shipping lanes but briefly cut through Crimean territorial waters. The West sees those waters as being Ukrainian while for Moscow, those waters are Russian. Data from a tracker shows that HMS Defender sailed 2nm/3.7km inside Crimean territorial water. In footage submitted by Jonathan Beale, the BBC reporter and the ship’s commander both openly discuss the fact this was a deliberate move and that a robust Russian response was expected. This defeats the British MoD narrative that HMS Defender remained in international waters at all times.
The Russian claim that a Su-24M conducted a “Warning Bombing” is difficult to take seriously. Verifying whether the Russians fired warning shots or not is a little bit more difficult to ascertain. In the BBC footage, you could clearly hear the Russia threat/warning over the radio and one of the FSB Border Guard vessel came as close as 100 metres from HMS Defender. Gun fire is also clearly heard in the distance. It is difficult to gauge the MoD claim that HMS Defender knowingly sailed within 3 miles of a Russian live gunnery exercise. It seems like an unnecessary manoeuvre during an already tense crossing.
On the day this incident happened, the British ambassador was summoned to the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow and met Russian officials. A couple of hours after the incident occurred, Rear Admiral Christopher John Parry also appeared on the BBC. He was a little more casual about the whole event as he stated: ”What went through my mind was “Back to the good old days of the Cold War””… He added “We buzz their ships and they buzz ours every time we cross paths near each other’s backyard or anywhere near contested waters”.
This is not where the story ends, however: It appears that the British wanted to sail through Crimean waters alongside the US Destroyer USS Laboon, which was present in the Black Sea at the time. However, the Biden administration decided against it. Sir Ian Duncan Smith (Conservative MP) criticised the American decision not to follow the Royal Navy ship into contested waters as he told The Telegraph:”Russia and China are now working together in a very aggressive way because they think they have America on the run”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was “entirely right” for HMS Defender to have followed that route:” We don’t recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea, this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory… It is entirely right that we should vindicate the law and pursue freedom of navigation in the way that we did and take the shortest route between two points”.
Not everyone in Great Britain appreciated this Royal Navy stunt, however: General Sir Nicholas Carter (Chief of the Defence Staff / Head of the Armed Forces) said two days later that “Miscalculation in Russian cat and mouse game could lead to a full blown war… The stand-off involving the RN Destroyer HMS Defender was the type of incident that risked unwarranted escalation”…
This incident, therefore, looks more like a British political stunt rather than a military one. One that did not have the support of Great Britain’s most important ally (Washington) and most importantly, one that did not even seem to have the full support of its own military. What could the aim of that stunt have been? A display of a resurgent, righteous and global Britain, perhaps? Whatever the final aim, one hopes this was worth it, as Russia has threatened to open fire on the next British warship that enters those contested waters. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said on Friday the 25th:”We can appeal to common sense, demand respect for international laws”…”If this does not help, we can bomb not only in the direction but also on target, if our colleagues do not understand”…”I warn everyone violating the state borders of the Russian Federation under the slogan of free navigation, from such provocative steps, because the security of our country comes first”.
In the short term, all this has achieved is that both sides accuse the other of lying, both sides present this event as a victory and as the rhetoric heats up, calm, grounded dialogue and constructive diplomacy are relegated to the back seat.