A shooting skirmish or a deadly collision between Russian and Western warships or aircraft in the Black Sea would almost certainly cause a serious crisis, evolving into a military confrontation, a regional armed conflict and, perhaps eventually, a global war. Such a doomsday scenario appeared to be quickly developing on June 23, 2021—but a far more prosaic reality soon emerged. Namely, the United Kingdom’s destroyer HMS Defender was sailing that day from the Ukrainian port of Odesa to Georgia, which, like Ukraine, aspires to membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While rounding Russian-occupied Crimea’s Cape Fiolent, close to Sevastopol (the main Russian naval base in the region), HMS Defender cut a corner to enter and then quickly leave the 12-mile territorial zone around Crimea. Such an action is known as “innocent passage” under the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). Of course, the main reason for the UK vessel’s chosen route was not just to shorten its voyage by several miles but also to put the Russian side on notice through a deliberate freedom of navigation operation. In response, two Federal Security Service (FSB) Border Guard patrol boats moved in to intercept the Defender as it entered the 12-mile zone, and one opened warning fire, according to Russian authorities and British correspondents aboard the UK destroyer. A Russian Su-24M jet bomber reportedly dropped four high-explosive 250-kilogram OFAB-250 fragmentation bombs; but aboard the Defender, this bomb attack was not noticed or registered. The UK vessel, traveling at over 30 knots, apparently outran the FSB patrol boats and left the 12-mile zone on the other side of Саре Fiolent. The incident reportedly lasted some 40 minutes and was over without any injuries or damage (TASS, June 23).
Moscow subsequently registered strong protests through diplomatic channels, whereas London maintained that no shots had been fired in anger, instead alleging that the Russians were probably holding gunnery exercises in the area. According to British correspondents onboard, the Russians radioed warnings, threatened to fire if HMS Defender did not turn, and eventually opened fire—but not at the naval vessel itself. The British authorities clarified no fire was directed at the Defender, which seems to be entirely true. The OFAB-250 fragmentation bombs is a “dumb,” unguided weapon designed for land attacks; its fragments after impact may fly more than 100 meters outward. With friend and foe ships maneuvering at full speed in the area, the Su-24M crew would have surely dropped its payload way away from HMS Defender and the FSB boats, which may explain why the splashdown went unnoticed. It is also possible that these Soviet-vintage munitions failed to detonate when hitting the water. Moscow feels publicly embarrassed and annoyed by the British denial (Militarynews.ru, June 23).
On April 14, 2021, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced it would be denying the right of innocent passage for foreign naval and government ships in parts of Crimea’s 12-mile territorial waters, including the Cape Fiolent region, from April 24 to October 31, 2021, citing military exercises (Interfax, April 20). This order, from Moscow’s point of view, deemed HMS Defender’s innocent passage around Cape Fiolent, yesterday, illegal. Of course, the United Kingdom, like most of the rest of the international community, does not recognize the 2014 annexation (or “reunification,” in the Kremlin’s characterization) of Crimea or Russia’s right to control the peninsula’s territorial waters. The Russian operators demanded HMS Defender turn away from Cape Fiolent because of military maneuvers in the area; but apparently, this was a fabricated pretext. The ships that engaged the Defender were not from the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) but lightly armed FSB patrol boats (Kommersant, June 24).
The HMS Defender encounter seems to have been preplanned. Prior to the incident, the official Twitter account of the Russian embassy in Washington issued a statement denouncing NATO-Ukrainian Sea Breeze 2021 naval exercises, which begin on June 28, as “aggressively anti-Russian.” The diplomatic mission warned about a heightened risk of incidents and called on the United States and its NATO allies to cease and desist (RBC, June 23). As HMS Defender was steaming to Саре Fiolent, Russia’s top military commander, the chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, speaking at a Moscow security conference, warned the US and UK to stop “provocatively deploying naval ships close to Russian borders. Incidents may happen.” Gerasimov specifically mentioned the destroyer HMS Dragon—a sister ship of HMS Defender—which supposedly had “abused the right of innocent passage” at Cape Fiolent on October 13, 2020. Gerasimov additionally assured the audience Russia will not use nuclear weapons first, except in cases when it reserves the right to (Interfax, June 23).
Gerasimov surely knew about the coming encounter while speaking at the conference in Moscow, during which the US and its allies were verbally trashed by Russia’s top generals, security/intelligence chiefs and like-minded foreigners—including China’s minister of national defense, General Wei Fenghe. The decision to take on HMS Defender and fire live warning shots was apparently taken ahead of time, at the highest level in Moscow. Attacking a British ship would have been less risky than firing at a US man-of-war. The FSB patrol boats were no match in armaments for HMS Defender, but air support was called in advance, and Russian land-mobile long-range anti-ship missiles most likely covered the encounter. Moscow strived to make the encounter bloodless while still sufficiently scaring the West away from supporting Ukraine—the goal was clearly not to start an all-European war. But the Su-24M bombing mission flopped, and the FSB boats turned out to be too slow for the agile HMS Defender. Instead of being intimidated, the UK caused Russia a loss of face by publicly denying a shooting incident even took place. The deputy foreign minister in charge of arms control and Russo-US relations, Sergei Ryabkov, told journalists, “We may use diplomatic language. If that does not work, if they do not understand, we may bomb—and next time, directly on target. We will defend Russian borders at any cost” (Interfax, June 24).
The joint Russian forces seem to have largely bungled the HMS Defender encounter. While the Royal Navy suddenly found itself in a potentially serious combat situation, with journalists onboard. But there is time to improve: The Sea Breeze 2021 exercises in the Black Sea region, involving over 30 warships, will last until July 10.