Why Did Boris Johnson Pick a Fight Over Crimea?

June 24, 2021 Updated: June 25, 2021

Commentary

It is almost incomprehensible—the UK’s warship, identified formally as Delta 36, but named HMS Defender, entered Russian claimed waters around Crimea, which the UK does not recognize but knows full well about Russia’s sensitivity in this Black Sea area.

In a drama lasting more than six minutes, an unnamed Russian Coast Guard ship demanded the British ship exit, radio telephoning HMS Defender with the message: “Keep Away from Borderline. Change Course to Starboard. You break the rule of innocent passage. If you don’t change course to starboard, I will fire.”

For a while Defender replied it was an innocent passage in international waters, but after three warning shots and flyovers by at least three Su-24 aircraft, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s warship turned right (starboard) and left Russia’s claimed waters, still insisting it was in international waters and accusing the Russians of “unprofessional” conduct.

The Russian reaction was very tough. It contested the UK statements vigorously, released an extensive video of the event, hauled in the Moscow-based naval attache and the UK ambassador, and made it clear it would not tolerate such intrusions.

But the real question is, why did Johnson do it?

It was hardly a helpful measure coming not long after an apparently successful summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Putin. Was Boris Johnson, the UK’s Prime Minister, acting with Washington’s approval, or did he just go out on his own? Or was the whole confrontation cooked up by the Royal Navy without political authorization?

So far at least, the UK leader is defending the UK ship’s operation and insisting the ship was in international waters. Neither the British or the Russians are talking about Biden or Washington.

The British could have risked losing one of their precious naval assets. There are only six Type 45 destroyers currently operating. HMS Defender went into service in 2013 and is set up as a guided missile ship. With a crew of slightly less than 200 sailors, the ship is equipped with Aster 15 (max range 48km or 30 miles) and Aster 30 (max range about 112 km or 70 miles) anti-aircraft missiles.

The ship could have shot down the rather old Russian Su-24’s that harassed Defender, but it would have encountered difficulty had the Russians used standoff weapons. Defender transited three kilometers (1.9 miles) inside Russian territory off Cape Fiolent in Crimea just before noon, local time on June 23.

The UK does not recognize the claimed Russian territorial waters around Crimea. Defender had just visited Odessa in Ukraine and appears to have taken the course it did as a provocation.

Putin, it will be recalled, had recently built up Russian forces around the Ukraine in a significant show of force. But as the U.S.-Russian summit approached, Putin stood down the assembled forces and deliberately pitched a Ukraine resolution “based on the Minsk protocol.”

The Minsk Protocol (original version and a second one called Minsk II) is an agreement involving the OSCE (the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe), the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Luhansk People’s Republic, Ukraine and Russia. The Minsk Protocols do not address Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 and, while the Russian annexation is not recognized internationally, as a practical matter Crimea has become part of and increasingly integrated into Russia’s territory.

One of the problems for Johnson’s Crimean stunt is that Russia will believe it was a Biden-promoted operation, only because the Russians don’t think the UK, or, for that matter, NATO, ever does anything without Washington calling the tune.

Russian analysts, including the somewhat independent Vladimir Pozner, believe that Washington does not keep its promises and is unreliable. Russia is also worried that the United States would put Ukraine in NATO, and Putin told Biden this is a “red line” for the Russian Federation.

If Ukraine was part of the NATO military alliance, Ukraine’s claims on Crimea could get NATO into a war (which it probably could not win). It could likewise force NATO into a confrontation over the Donbas in eastern Ukraine (which includes Donetsk and Luhansk).

At minimum the confrontation off Cape Fiolent (Mys Fiolent) directly undermines any progress in the U.S.-Russian Summit and deepens distrust between the parties.

It is at minimum strange that the UK would go out on its own and disrupt a diplomatic process that has only just begun.

Stephen Bryen is regarded as a thought leader on technology security policy, twice being awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Medal. His most recent book is “Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Stephen Bryen
Stephen Bryen
Dr. Stephen Bryen is regarded as a thought leader on technology security policy, twice being awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Medal. His most recent book is “Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers.”