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HMS Defender in the Black Sea: What to expect

Less than two weeks after the Gibraltar-based HMS Trent left the Black Sea, HMS Defender is now heading into waters[↗] that have increasingly become the focus of Russian efforts to assert regional hegemony. As well as a gesture of defiance to Moscow and solidarity with Kyiv, this deployment reflects the way military forces are also political instruments, used as much to signal commitment as prepare for war.

HMS Defender is a modern Type 45 destroyer from the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group. This group is currently embarked on a half-year mission – Operation FORTIS[↗] – that will take it to the South China Sea, itself the subject of a similar ‘sea grab’ by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). HMS Defender will rejoin the rest of the group after its side trip to the Black Sea. It is a much more substantial vessel than HMS Trent – an Offshore Patrol Vessel – and Moscow may well consider its presence more of a challenge.

In October 2020, HMS Defender’s sister-ship, HMS Dragon, was engaged in a similar operation[↗] on waters off Crimea, which Moscow now claims in defiance of international law, when it was intercepted by vessels from the Russian Border Guard. What appears to have been nothing more than a possibly ill-tempered radio conversation, following which HMS Dragon continued on its way, was then spun[↗] by Vladimir Kulishov, Head of the Border Guard, as a fanciful triumph[↗] in which, ‘as a result of joint actions with the Russian Navy and Aerospace Forces, the warship was expelled into neutral waters.’

Presuming that HMS Defender does more than poke its prow into the Black Sea, a Russian response which combines heightened rhetoric with perhaps some military theatrics, from low passes by Russian jets to close encounters with ships, can be expected – similarly to the ‘greeting’ offered[↗] to another Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Duncan, when it paid a visit to the region in 2018. Although there is always the risk of miscalculation and accident, this will be essentially for show, though, hoping to deter or provoke HMS Defender’s crew.

The essential themes, though, will be the usual contradictory three that Moscow tends to deploy in such circumstances:

  1. That the United Kingdom (UK) is seeking to claim for itself[↗] the role of being ‘the most toxic state in the world for Moscow. Even more toxic than the United States.’ After all, Britain has already been blamed for everything from running opposition leader[↗] Alexei Navalny as an MI6 asset to, bizarrely, the Belarusian regime’s forcing down a Ryanair jet[↗] to arrest an opposition journalist.
  1. That in any case this is irrelevant because the UK is, in words attributed to presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov, a ‘small island no-one pays attention to.’ Peskov denied[↗] the attribution, but such disparaging statements have become somewhat commonplace, especially on Russian television’s charged geopolitical talk shows.
  1. That the Russian military is more than capable of seeing off any threat. According[↗] to Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, a former Commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet: ‘I would not even say that the British [navy] would be able to tickle our nerves. Maybe, only the heel, a little.’

Behind the surrealism of the imagery, and the contradictory nature[↗] of the framing that presents the UK as both implacable menace and global irrelevance, is a recognition of the extent to which this is a struggle of ‘discursive statecraft[↗]’, one being fought on a series of axes.

On the one hand, this is between London and Moscow. The Kremlin’s very eagerness to position it as irrelevant underline how the UK has long loomed large[↗] in Russia’s geopolitical imaginary, and thus its capacity to project its discursive power accordingly. Deploying a modern warship – powerful enough that it cannot be ignored, not enough to be a threat – and do so independently of the United States (US) Navy (which has its own destroyer in the area), is both a challenge to the Kremlin’s efforts to claim the Black Sea as a Russian pond, and also to redefine Britain as a second-rank American dependency.

But this is also a broader issue. Britain has few, if any, direct interests in the Black Sea. Rather, for the UK, this is about challenging Russian attempts to normalise its annexation of Crimea, while simultaneously supporting and reassuring Ukraine.

Despite overblown talk about Vladimir Putin being fundamentally opposed to the rules-based international system, he really just wants to use it to his advantage. Russia is seeking to treat its illegal annexation of Crimea as an accepted fact, and apply the usual laws about territorial waters and exclusive economic zones accordingly. Only constant challenge through such freedom of navigation manoeuvres will prevent today’s aggression becoming tomorrow’s done deal.

This also reaffirms Britain’s – and thus the West’s – continued commitment to Ukraine. Kyiv may crave membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), but for a range of reasons this is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Instead, such deployments as HMS Defender’s, as well as the Operational ORBITAL[↗] training mission, are intended not just to provide practical security advantages, but also demonstrate support for Ukraine. This is important, not least in reminding Moscow that what happens in Crimea and the Donbas does not necessarily stay there.

Part of the rationale for the new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its Carrier Strike Group was, in the words[↗] of Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, to be ‘flying the flag for Global Britain – projecting our influence, signalling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow.’ This may sound like grandiloquent bombast, but it underlines the degree to which armed forces today are at least as much political as war-fighting assets, engaged in ‘heavy metal diplomacy[↗]’ along a spectrum between the kind of intimidatory troop build-up Moscow staged recently on the Ukrainian border, to the Royal Navy’s kind of confidence-building gesture.

In this way, HMS Defender is living up to its name. It is pushing back against Moscow’s efforts to position the UK as a marginal power. It is asserting Britain’s continued status as an independent, global actor. It is helping underwrite security in the Black Sea region alongside the US and – to a sadly lesser degree – the European Union (EU). Finally, by confronting Russian attempts to claim exclusive access to swathes of the Black Sea far from its legitimate territory, it is pushing back against the pernicious ‘lawfare’ that seeks to pervert international rules for national gain. 

Not bad for one British destroyer.

Dr Mark Galeotti is Director of Mayak Intelligence Ltd.

Image credit: Ministry of Defence.

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