The HMS Defender Incident: What happened and What Are the Political Ramifications?
(Russia Matters – russiamatters.org – Dmitry Gorenburg – July 1, 2021)
Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist at CNA and an associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
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.
(NB: A good visualization of these events can be found at The Guardian’s website, here).
While no definitive judgment can be made, the claims made by Russian officials that Russian aircraft had dropped bombs and ships had fired warning shots in the immediate vicinity of the HMS Defender are on the whole implausible. The Russian Defense Ministry tends to release video materials to accompany its claims whenever such video is available. Furthermore, neither the crew of the HMS Defender nor the journalist team on board the ship reported any visual, audio or instrumentation indications of bombs landing in the vicinity of the ship or even being deployed on the aircraft passing near the ship. Both Western and Russian experts thus discount the likelihood that bombs were dropped. As for the warning shots, it is clear that shots were fired. In fact the Russian side released video evidence of shots being fired. However, both the British Defense Ministry and independent observers have noted that these shots were either behind or astern of the ship and were too distant to be considered warning shots by the British crew. This is most likely because the Coast Guard ships, traveling at 21 knots, were not fast enough to keep up with the HMS Defender, which was traveling at 30 knots. As for Vladimir Putin’s claim that a U.S. spy plane was operating in the Black Sea, this would not be surprising, as the U.S. military has in the past deployed reconnaissance aircraft to the area while U.S. ships were present in the Black Sea and USS Laboon was in the Black Sea on June 23. However, this does not mean that any such aircraft was necessarily operating in concert with the HMS Defender.
Legal ramifications and political calculations
So why did the Royal Navy decide to sail its ship so close to Crimean shores? Crimean territorial waters have been claimed by Russia since its annexation of the peninsula in 2014. However, Western countries including the United Kingdom do not recognize the annexation and therefore consider these waters to belong to Ukraine. Furthermore, the Law of the Sea states that ships have the right to pass through another country’s territorial waters using the right of innocent passage when such a course is an internationally recognized traffic separation corridor. Russia has in the past recognized that this right applies to both merchant and military vessels. In fact, Russian Navy ships commonly go through British waters in the English Channel using the right of innocent passage.
Russian officials and military experts have rejected this argument, stating that innocent passage was not allowed because Russia had in April announced the closure of its territorial waters through October. Furthermore, they argue that the British ship was not engaged in innocent passage because it was at a heightened state of alert and was presumably conducting intelligence-gathering as it passed near Crimean territory. Such an extended closure does not comport with normal practice and was undoubtedly not recognized by British authorities. And Western experts in maritime law are confident that none of the HMS Defender’s actions as it sailed by Crimea violated the right of innocent passage.
Western navies often undertake Freedom of Navigation (FONOPS) operations to maintain the right of passage in disputed or potentially disputed maritime zones. Crimean territorial waters certainly fall into this category. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s statement that “This is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory, it was entirely right that we should vindicate the law and pursue freedom of navigation in the way that we did,” succinctly summarizes the goals of the British government.
According to government planning documents reportedly found at a bus stop in Kent and subsequently leaked to the BBC, the decision for the HMS Defender to travel this direct route rather than a course that took it farther away from Crimea was made at the highest levels of the British government. The British government believed that this passage would highlight British support for Ukraine. At the same time, it was prepared for the possibility of confrontation. In fact, the documents indicate that the presence of embedded journalists would “provide an option for independent verification of the HMS Defender’s action.”
Although Russia’s response was faster and more robust than expected by British officials, it was not surprising. Russian officials have repeatedly indicated that they would react strongly to any infringement of Russia’s claim to Crimea. Allowing the British ship to pass by with no reaction would have, from this point of view, allowed a Western state to cast doubt on Russian sovereignty over Crimea with no response. It would also have been perceived as an indication of weakness in the face of a NATO military provocation. For these reasons, the Russian government clearly felt the need to respond in a manner that demonstrated the risks of Western military activities in the immediate vicinity of Crimea.
Impact on Russia’s confrontation with the West
How will this incident impact the ongoing confrontation between Russia and NATO? During his annual televised call-in show on June 30, Vladimir Putin described the incident as a provocation that brought the confrontation to a new level. He argued that Russians “are fighting for ourselves and our future on our own territory. It was not us who covered thousands of kilometers by air and sea towards them; it was them who approached our borders and entered our territorial sea…” In the same vein, Russian officials have threatened that if a Western warship enters Russian waters again, the military could fire on it. Russian commentators have argued that future incidents carry a high risk of further escalation and could cause interactions to deteriorate to the point of brinksmanship.
However, I would argue that the HMS Defender incident has not increased the actual risk of armed confrontation in the Black Sea between Russia and NATO to any significant extent. While Vladimir Putin excoriated the West for bringing its military to Russia’s border, and discussed what might have happened had Russia sunk the HMS Defender, Russia’s military acted cautiously so as to minimize the risk of confrontation. The released video of the Russian ship firing warning shots includes audio where the commander clearly and repeatedly states that the shots must not hit the HMS Defender. Furthermore, both journalists and military personnel on board the HMS Defender highlighted that Russian aircraft in the vicinity were not carrying weapons.
The difference between Russia’s public claims about its response to the HMS Defender’s transit and its actual response highlights both Russia’s caution regarding a potential military confrontation with NATO and the limits of its capabilities. The extent of the response was exaggerated for political purposes, but at no point did the Russian military take any actions that would have posed a risk of an armed response from the ship. Furthermore, Russia’s inability to rapidly deploy naval assets (as opposed to seriously outclassed Coast Guard ships) shows that there remain serious gaps in its maritime rapid response capabilities.
At the same time, Western leaders understand the need to act cautiously even as they challenge Russian sovereignty claims in Crimea. After all, since the United Kingdom considers all of Crimea and its maritime zone to be Ukrainian territory, the HMS Defender could have entered Crimean waters at any location and without claiming the right of innocent passage, as long as it had Ukrainian permission. But such an action would have been far more confrontational and would likely have been interpreted as a directly hostile act by the Russian government. In other words, the British government chose a finely balanced strategy to make its political point without unduly exacerbating the confrontation with Russia. I expect that future activities on both sides will continue to seek to maintain this balance.
Although in this case both sides took steps to prevent mistakes, the greatest risk for the political confrontation between Russia and NATO to result in armed conflict is through inadvertent escalation. In a future incident, one of the parties might be less careful, or might take on board the recommendations of some of the more hot-headed Russian commentators to fire directly at the target if a warning shot does not result in a change of course. More level-headed commentators have called for efforts to improve deconfliction efforts. This is a laudable goal, but somewhat meaningless in practice since deconfliction venues such as INCSEA talks have existed for decades and continue to function. As long as one or both sides believe that it is beneficial to use their military forces to make political points, we should expect more incidents of this type to take place.
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