The incident of 23 June off the coast of Crimea when the British destroyer HMS Defender intentionally crossed into the territorial waters of the Russian Federation and was shooed away by Russian coast guard vessels and fighter jets has received a modicum of coverage in Western Europe, much more coverage in the U.K., itself, where the fissures within Boris Johnson’s cabinet in advance of the adventure came to light, exposing the remarkable fact that the go/no-go dispute between the Defense and the Foreign Ministry was settled by decision of the Prime Minister himself.
Adding to the piquancy within the U.K. was the direct conflict between what was reported by a BBC journalist on board the Defender and what was announced by the British Minister of Defense: the former confirmed Russian claims that warning shots were fired and bombs dropped in the path of the British ship to force it to change course and leave the RF territorial waters; the latter said that no Russian warning shots were noted but called the close overflight of the vessel by Russian fighter jets risky and unprofessional.
Of course, British journalists lost no time taking the question of responsibility for the incident straight back to the Prime Minister, who on live television said that he saw no fault in what was done, because Britain does not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, hence the waters in question are Ukrainian, not Russian, and the British Navy was exercising its rights to innocent passage under international law.
One’s jaw drops at Johnson’s statements. This, and his assertion not to worry, that Russian-British relations had survived even greater conflict in the past, revealed a state of mind that goes beyond insouciance to pure idiocy.
The question of the prime minister’s fitness for office has come up many times in the past. First, over his dogged insistence on Brexit, and “hard Brexit” at that, cost what it may. However, he survived politically, got his Brexit across all hurdles, claimed victory and then recouped much of the spent political currency by successfully managing a vaccination campaign that put Britain way ahead of Continental Europe in protecting its population from the ravages of the Covid-19 epidemic. For these reasons it is doubtful that raised eyebrows among some British compatriots over the extraordinary risks taken last week to poke the Russians in the eye will cost Johnson anything.
Having just spoken of Johnson’s idiocy, I must take a step back and admit that there is likely reason to his madness. The international context is clear. Following Joe Biden’s 16 June summit with Vladimir Putin in Geneva and the changed course of US-Russian relations in prospect, towards greater pragmatism, less ideological posturing, Johnson, the visceral Russophobe, is odd man out. Moreover, even in the European Union, measures were afoot last week to change course on Russia. To be sure, the proposal for a similar EU summit with Putin advanced by Angela Merkel and seconded by Emmanuel Macron did not receive approval from the 27, but some kind of outreach to Russia at another level remains in prospect. Against this background, Johnson’s staged incident in the Black Sea was meant to stiffen the resolve of the anti-Russian forces both on Capitol Hill and among the EU’s hardline states, the Baltics, Poland, Romania and, most recently, the Czech Republic. In this way, the UK reasserts its relevance as a great power. No matter that this last hurrah may end in the obliteration of the British navy by overwhelming Russian force at any time of their choosing.
In Russia, the incident was viewed as more than a passing curiosity. It was taken as a precursor to war. The next day Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ryabkov stated flatly that any future incursions will be met by force. The Brits may expect not warning shots but direct attack from the Russian military.
And already on Saturday, 24 June, the Russians made their counter-move to remind the British of who is who and what is what. This time not in the Black Sea but in the Mediterranean, where they moved their previously planned combined submarine, surface vessel and air force exercises to within 30 km of the new British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth in a position just south of Cyprus. The MHS Defender, it will be remembered, is part of that aircraft carrier’s task force as it makes its way around the globe on its maiden mission.
In a month or two, this aircraft carrier task force will enter the South China Sea where it is expected to make similar provocative actions in the exercise of Her Majesty’s rights of naval passage through international waters. The Brits have already foresworn sending the task force through the Straits of Taiwan which would by general understanding be a step too far with respect to the People’s Republic of China. However, something as foolish as the incident off the Crimea is surely planned.
In this regard, we may be sure that these past few days Russians have been exchanging information with their Chinese colleagues on how to keep the British Navy from doing anything really stupid and touching off a war.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021