The Russian Defence Ministry claimed today that their airforce had dropped bombs near to HMS Defender as she passed through the Black Sea. These claims were repeated by various UK media outlets until finally denied by the Ministry of Defence. Here we summarise what took place and the background to events.
UK/Ukraine defence relationship deepens
HMS Defender left Instanbul (in company with HNLMS Eversen) on 14th June and arrived in Odesa on 18th June. The two ships were making a visit primarily to support defence engagement as the UK seeks to enhance Ukrainian security. A Memorandum of Implementation (MOI) between the UK and Ukraine was signed on board.
The MOI agreed that Babcock International will take the lead in “enhancement of capabilities on existing naval platforms, the delivery of new platforms, including fast attack missile craft, a modern frigate capability, shipborne armaments and the training of naval personnel”. Two of the RN’s Sandown class minehunters will be transferred and 8 missile boats will be constructed for the Ukrainian Navy, two of them in British shipyards. Babcock refused to confirm what “frigate capability” means but there is considerable speculation that this implies the first export success for the Type 31/Arrowhead-140.
While Defender and Evertsen were safely alongside in Odesa, their Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals which transmit position details as an aid to maritime safety were faked. AIS showed the two ships provocatively heading directly to a position within two nautical miles of the Russian naval base at Sevastapol. Various OSINT sources reported this, briefly causing alarm, although it was quickly dismissed as a ruse, the two ships could be observed in Odesa live on harbour webcams. The manipulation of AIS data is not new but is happening more frequently. It is unclear who was behind the hack but it typical of the unattributable ‘grey zone’ misinformation activity practised by adversaries.
This is another warning to excitable OSINT enthusiasts not rely on unverified AIS information to track warship movements. Most navies only use AIS ‘honestly’ for safety purposes in confined waters and turn it off whenever they can. AIS is now frequently spoofed by various actors and is often misleading, particularly in regards to naval vessels.
Defender and Evertsen sailed from Odesa on 22nd June, heading for Georgia. The planned route involved making innocent passage through the waters off Cape Fiolent on the Southern tip of Crimea, which is allowed under international law. The UK still regards Crimea as occupied and these as Ukrainian territorial waters, the MoD described the route taken by HMS Defender as an “internationally recognised traffic separation corridor”. If AIS data can be relied upon in this case, it would seem Defender was within 10 miles of the coast, about 2 miles inside territorial waters. This was an intentional FONOP – a Freedom of Navigation Operation to make the point that the Black Sea should remain subject to international norms.
It was widely reported that sources in Moscow were claiming that “HMS Defender entered Russian territorial waters and a border patrol ship fired the warning shots while an SU-24 jet dropped four bombs in HMS Defender’s path, prompting the British vessel to turn around”. This was repeated as fact by some UK media outlets which would be wiser to treat any Russian claims with extreme caution in future.
BBC Defence reporter, Johnathan Beale, is onboard Defender so there is a reliable independent witness on the spot. He said that shots were heard but they were well away from the ship. This is consistent with gunnery exercises that Russia had previously announced would be held in the area. Beale confirmed the ship has been at action stations and was being harassed by ships, aircraft with hostile warnings issued via radio. A recording of what is purported to be radio traffic between HMS Defender and Russian warships has been posted here and the Russian MoD has posted a video taken from jets flying close to the ship. The CO of Defender said that the ship detected more than 20 military aircraft close by.
Two coastguard vessels were also shadowing the destroyer and attempting to force a course change, coming as close as 100m at one point. This incident is reminiscent of when a large number of jets buzzed HMS Duncan in the Black Sea in February 2018.
Later in the day, the British Naval attache in Moscow was invited for an interview without coffee where the Russians conveyed their displeasure and handed over a communique, nicely presented in red document binder.
Russian military assertiveness appears to be on the increase. Earlier this week, the Commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group told reporters the “extent of Russian surveillance already seen has gone far beyond what the military expected”. This is a polite way of saying that their activity is already at a level that borders on harassment as the UK and its allies conduct lawful operations in international waters and airspace in the eastern Mediterranean.
The real story here is not the supposed “firing of shots” but the ongoing campaign of Russian disinformation and the harassment of warships conducting operations in keeping with legal norms. Some will try to portray this as ‘NATO provocation’, but it should be remembered who are the aggressors that invaded another nation and the Black Sea is an international waterway, not a Russian lake. Moscow’s actions may ultimately be counterproductive, its behaviour is likely to stiffen NATO resolve and lead to an increased naval presence in the region.