British ministers will have no illusions that the decision to sail with HMS Defender into disputed waters off the Russian-annexed Crimean coast would provoke a reaction from the Kremlin.
A dispute over whether or not warning shots were fired is beside the point, although if they were, they were miles apart. Because even if the West considers that Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014, is still part of Ukraine, the Russians do not and will act accordingly.
It was no surprise, in fact quite routine, that the Russians closely followed the British warship as it passed near Crimea, with the planes flying overhead, which helped produce a dramatic radio report for the BBC’s defense correspondent. on board.
Such confrontations have their own rules and rhythm. Russian aircraft routinely fly close to UK airspace, testing the speed of British air defenses. Typically, there are never any prospects for actual shooting, but the activity exercises pilots on both sides.
However, this time there have been other irritations for the Russians. The Kremlin likes to see the Black Sea as its naval backyard, but the West is working increasingly closely to reinforce neighboring Ukraine, still in conflict with its larger neighbor in the eastern Donbas region.
London and Kiev signed a naval cooperation agreement this week aboard HMS Defender in Odessa, promising to work together on eight new warships and build a new naval base in the Black Sea. Among those present on the British side were Deputy Defense Minister Jeremy Quin and the First Lord of the Sea, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin.
Thus, a reaction from the Kremlin would have been doubly expected today, although the Defense Ministry appears to have been caught off guard by Russia’s initial claims. Denying that shots were fired gave the impression that the Kremlin was conducting an exercise in disinformation, when perhaps it was simply guilty of exaggerating because the shots were further away.
Both sides will be able to claim their own victories: the Russians say they drove the British warship out of their waters; The HMS Defender left after an hour or so, as was always intended. Britain will argue that it defended an important principle during the short voyage: freedom of navigation, including the right of “innocent passage” within the 12-mile territorial limit.
In many ways, the intended audience was not the Kremlin, but Beijing. Towards the end of the summer, the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will lead a multinational fleet through the South China Sea, where China has a growing number of territorial claims stretching up to 1,200 miles from its mainland.
British experts, such as former Rear Admiral Chris Parry, argue that “the sea is the physical equivalent of the global web” and that it is the job of the UK and other Western nations “to keep the roads open by using them.”
The reality is that China’s maritime power is growing rapidly, as is the West’s desire to respond to it. Which means that such confrontations at sea are likely to occur many times yet.