The HMS Defender Incident: What happened and What Are the Political Ramifications?

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?

Timeline

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.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

USS Monterey and the US presence in the Black Sea

Josh Kucera from The Bug Pit asked me for my views on recent Russian criticisms of the USS Monterey Aegis-equipped cruiser participating in the Sea Breeze 2011 naval exercises in the Black Sea.

The purpose of the exercise is to conduct training in counter-piracy operations, non-combatant evacuation operations, boarding, and search and seizure. As Josh points out, none of this has anything to do with missile defense. Yet Russian objections focus on this issue. Josh quotes two Russian statements on the ship visit, the first from a Georgian newspaper and the second as reported by RIA-Novosti.

  1. “The Russian side has repeatedly stressed that we will not let pass unnoticed the appearance of elements of US strategic infrastructure in the immediate proximity to our borders and will see such steps as a threat to our security.”
  2. “The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier expressed concern that along with negotiations on cooperation in the global air defense system, [the U.S.] is conducting simultaneous ‘reconnaissance’ operations near the borders of our country.”

In addition to these objections related to missile defense, the foreign ministry also objected to the Monterey’s visit to Batumi, Georgia after the exercise:

And now this American warship has demonstratively entered the Georgian port of Batumi… Whatever the explanations are, it is clear that the Georgian authorities will see the incident as encouragement for their ambitions for revenge against the Russian allies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is unlikely to help stability in the region.

As I see it, the reason for the controversy is because the Russian side believes that they were promised that the U.S. would not send Aegis cruisers to the Black Sea unless there was some kind of imminent threat. Obviously that wasn’t the case here, so they think this is another case of promises broken, something they’re very sensitive about because of their perceptions of how NATO enlargement went down.

The Monterey has been officially designated as part of phase one of the European missile defense shield. It is normally stationed in the Mediterranean as a missile defense ship. So it wasn’t irrational for Russia to connect its arrival in the Black Sea with missile defense issues.

On the one hand, the purpose of the visit has nothing to do with missile defense. On the other hand, it’s obvious to everyone that by sending an Aegis cruiser to Batumi the US is making a statement. Not so much about missile defense, but about the US feeling that it has the right to send its warships anywhere it wants to without regard for the sensitivities of countries such as Russia. And Russian officials never miss the opportunity to turn a molehill into a mountain when it comes to that kind of symbolism.

At the same time, it seems to me that as far as the US is concerned, its navy is just following a long-stated policy that its ships will go anywhere they’re invited, without regard for what other states in the area think. So from that point of view they’re just following through. And they’re right that the ship’s purpose in the Black Sea has nothing to do with missile defense.

I think the US policy is consistent — after all, Moscow has objected to the presence of US warships in the Black Sea on several previous occasions. It’s just that sending an AEGIS cruiser has allowed Moscow to give its criticisms another form. Rather than just focusing on US ships visiting Georgia, it can now use the missile defense angle…

While Josh thinks this may have a negative effect on efforts to reset US-Russian relations, I’m not so sure. One should always be careful to distinguish Russian rhetoric from practical cooperation. While I think cooperation on missile defense is a dead end, there is every possibility of continuing cooperation on other issues that affect the security of both states. I would be surprised if any number of negative statements such as the ones put out by Moscow on the Monterey visit would affect that.

UPDATE: Regarding the last paragraph, Josh wrote me with the following clarification:

I don’t think this episode is causing problems between the US and Russia, but more that a symptom that something is wrong. Because otherwise Russia wouldn’t be making such a mountain out of this molehill, and possibly the US would have been a little more cautious about sending a provocative signal. But then, when we get
into Russian politics I’m definitely out of my element…

On this, I pretty much agree. There are still many people (on both sides) who are inherently suspicious of the other side’s intentions, and their statements just feed on each other to reproduce the cycle of suspicion and latent (or more) hostility. And that is going to keep causing problems for US-Russian relations for years to come.