I wrote a piece on the HMS Defender incident for Russia Matters. Here’s a preview. You can read the whole article here.
On June 23, the HMS Defender—a British Type 45 destroyer—was involved in a confrontation with the Russian military while sailing near the Crimean Peninsula. The ship was in the Black Sea to participate in NATO’s Sea Breeze exercise. Prior to the start of the exercise, it had completed a port visit to the Ukrainian port of Odesa and was on its way to make a similar port visit to Batumi, Georgia. As it passed through territorial waters claimed by Russia, the ship was closely shadowed by Russian forces. Furthermore, the Russian military claimed that it fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the vicinity of the ship, forcing it to move into international waters. What actually happened during the incident? Why did the British and Russian governments take the actions they took? What is the likely impact of the incident on the confrontation between Russia and NATO? And how does it affect the likelihood of future escalation?
The HMS Defender was part of a NATO naval task force participating in Operation Sea Guardian, NATO’s counter-terrorism mission in the Mediterranean. It entered the Black Sea on June 14 after a port visit to Istanbul. Its first stop was Odesa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port. While they were moored in Odesa, the HMS Defender and a Dutch navy ship had their automatic identification system (AIS) signals spoofed by Russian electronic warfare systems to indicate that they were traveling toward Crimean waters, approaching to within two nautical miles of the entrance to Russia’s Sevastopol naval base. In actuality, video evidence showed that the ships did not leave Odesa harbor for several more days. After the visit to Odesa, the HMS Defender was scheduled to make a port visit to Batumi, Georgia before joining the multi-national NATO-led Sea Breeze exercise that began in the Black Sea on June 28.
The most direct route from Odesa to Batumi involves a passage through Crimean territorial waters off Cape Fiolent, and this was the route that the HMS Defender took on June 23 as it transited from Odesa to Batumi. The ship entered Crimean waters at either 11:50am (according to British sources) or 11:52am (according to Russian sources). It was shadowed by two Russian Coast Guard ships. Approximately 20 Russian aircraft, including a Su-24 bomber, a Su-30 fighter, and a Be-12 amphibious aircraft flew near the British ship. At noon, the Coast Guard warned that a live fire gunnery exercise would start imminently. At some point, the Russian military warned the HMS Defender by radio that it would fire if the British ship did not change course. One of the Russian ships fired shots in the general vicinity of the British ship at 12:08pm. According to Russian sources, the Su-24 dropped four unguided OFAB-250 fragmentation bombs at 12:19pm. However, no video evidence of this action has been released and the British Navy has repeatedly rejected the claim that any bombs were dropped in the vicinity of its ship. The HMS Defender then departed Crimean waters at either 12:24pm (according to Russian sources) or 12:26pm (according to British sources) and made its way to Georgia without further incident. In his call-in show on June 30, Vladimir Putin claimed that a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was in the vicinity and operating in concert with the HMS Defender, suggesting that the two countries were therefore working together during the confrontation.
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